You Can’t Take It With You
Everyman does its valiant best with a ponderous play
Published: May 23, 2012
You Can’T Take It With You
By George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, directed by Vincent Lancisi
At Everyman Theatre through June 17
Nineteen actors come out on the Everyman Theatre stage for the curtain call of You Can’t Take It With You. It’s quite a crowd, and it suggests director Vince Lancisi chose this old warhorse to give many of Maryland’s finest actors a chance to ham it up. Ham it up they do, but after the show’s big moments, when the peals of laughter subside, it’s impossible to overlook how creaky a contraption this script really is.
The show’s climax comes a bit sooner than it should, about halfway through the show, as the Sycamore family is spending a typical evening at their New York City home in 1936. Daughter Alice (Brianna Letourneau) is supervising the preparations for dinner with her fiance’s high-society parents the following night. Her awkward sister Essie (Megan Anderson) is taking ballet lessons from the Czarist refugee Kolenkhov (Bruce Nelson), while Essie’s husband Ed (Clinton Brandhagen) plays the first movement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade on the xylophone. Grandpa (Stan Weiman) is throwing darts, while mother Penny (Caitlin O’Connell) paints the toga-wrapped boarder Mr. De Pinna (Wil Love) and the drunken actress Miss Wellington (Barbara Pinolini) snores on the couch.
Lancisi builds the scene wonderfully, introducing each section of the tableau in turn, like a clown adding one flaming torch at a time to his juggling routine. Just when it seems that one more element will cause a catastrophe, Lancisi adds a final torch—the maid’s boyfriend Donald (Jon Hudson Odom) teetering on a chair as he tries to swat a fly—and then allows it all to collapse. The doorbell rings and in walks Alice’s fiance Tony (Matthew Schleigh) and his parents Mr. and Mrs. Kirby (Carl Schurr and Deborah Hazlett), 24 hours early for dinner. The older Kirbys are shocked by what they see, Alice is mortified, and Grandpa is tickled pink by the scene.
So is the audience, for it’s an expertly executed bit of comedy. Unfortunately, Hart and Kaufman weren’t content to allow the contrast between the eccentric, anything-goes Sycamores and the staid, conservative Kirbys to speak for itself. The playwrights force poor Weiman, in his role as Grandpa, to hammer home the point—and in case you didn’t get it the first time, he hammers it again and again and again. By the time he delivers his smug, interminable defense of nonconformity in Act III, the effervescence of Act II’s big scene has gone flat.
Weiman’s Grandpa, a short, silver-bearded man, quit his Wall Street job in 1901 to spend his time collecting snakes, visiting zoos, and playing darts, and the rest of the family has likewise forsaken careers to pursue passions. Paul (Tom Weyburn), the father, makes fireworks in the basement with Mr. De Pinna; Penny has a file cabinet full of unfinished plays; and Ed prints manifestos when he’s not arranging Beethoven for xylophone. None of them is especially good at these pursuits, but they’re all enjoying themselves immensely. Hart and Kaufman never explain how the family manages to afford their huge house and maid.
Alice’s passion is a bit more practical: She runs the office for Kirby and Co. on Wall Street, where she met Tony, the boss’ son. But he wants to get married, and she believes their families are too different to ever get along, a point reinforced by the Act II catastrophe. These romantic leads are good-looking and earnest, but the laughs come from the supporting roles. Alas, Hart and Kaufman have given each small role one joke to be repeated again and again. The wonderful Megan Anderson, for example, is asked to never lose her bubbly enthusiasm for ballet despite being very bad at it. This is funny the first time, not so much the fourth time.
The great Bruce Nelson plays Essie’s ballet teacher as a high-handed, pompous European artiste—complete with streaked waves of hair and a drooping bowtie—reduced to giving lessons in a crowded parlor to a young woman with two left feet. Once again, funnier the first time than the fourth. As Mrs. Kirby, Deborah Hazlett has the advantage of only having one real scene, where she plays a socialite confronted with one outrage after another from the Sycamores. She gets more laughs with the arching of her eyebrows in response to these affronts than the other actors get with their most flamboyant gestures. Caitlin O’Connell, making her Everyman debut after countless roles at Center Stage, has a lot more scope as the irrepressible Penny and uses it to make her character likable despite missing every social cue and reality check.
The set is a missed opportunity, for instead of making the home as unconventional as the family who lives there, designer Daniel Ettinger fills the walls and shelves with Hummel figurines, blue-and-white china, fake fruit, and Russian dolls. On the other hand, instead of keeping the fireworks offstage, as most productions do, Lancisi lets us see red smoke pour out of a paint can and a firecracker blow the lid off a kitchen pot. These explosions, like the big bursts of laughter that happen from time to time, are enough to keep our minds off the heavy-handed script.
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