I am so glad that I have friends like the actor/Playwright David Rhodes. It was he who pointed out to me what a risky bit of business Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman created with You Can’t Take It With You.
Originally produced in 1936, with the Depression still in full swing, this is the story of a family supported by passive income, whose main goal in life was to just go along and be happy in our own sort of way. Martin Vanderhof – Grandpa – (James Earl Jones) quit his job in 1901 and decided to relax and let life come to him. When this play opened, bread lines were still part of the present, and the idea that someone could relax and let the happy days entertain them was a wild concept.
In addition to that, the entire family – his daughter Penelope (Kristine Nielsen), her husband Paul (Mark Linn-Baker), their daughter Essie (the beguiling Annaleigh Ashford) and son-in-law Ed (Will Brill) have taken up Grandpa’s torch with fervor. One would never know The Great Depression was just outside the door. Penelope is lost in a land of unfinished plays because a typewriter was delivered by mistake years ago. Paul spends his hours in the basement with a member of the extended family Mr. DePinna (Patrick Kerr) cooking up fireworks. Essie is permanently attached to her toe shoes and can be found, at any time of day, physically emoting to her husband’s xylophone impromptus.
There are bohemian visitors as well, like Boris Kolenkhov (Reg Rogers) and brings his guest – The Grand Duchess Olga Katrina (Elizabeth Ashley) who is a refugee working as a waitress – who is in need of a good meal. The cherry on top is Julie Halston as Gay Wellington, the actress being wooed by Penny for the play that will never be produced.
And finally – there are the two black helpers Rheba (Crystal Dickinson) and Donald (Marc Damon Johnson) – who , while they are responsible for getting the food onto the table, they are invited to sit and break bread with Grandpa and his crew. They are family, period.
Bada-bing bada-boom. All this in 1936? Reality ignored and rules broken at every turn. What appears harmless and even a little inspiring today had to have been a poke in the eye 80 years ago.
The really extraordinary part of all this is that today You Can’t Take It With You still works. Grandpa’s belief in letting life be the glorious gift it was meant to be – well that is all the rage these days isn’t is: practicing gratitude and appreciation, focusing on what it working in your life instead of what is not with the understanding that whatever you focus on will show up even more. To drive the point home Hart and Kaufman give us the other daughter Alice, Rose Byrne, who is intelligent enough to know that the man she loves, Tony Kirby (Fran Kranz) has parents (Johanna Day and Byron Jennings) who will never understand or accept Grandpa et al. The meeting is inevitable, and it is a doozie.
Yet it all works out in the end, doesn’t it? Who can resist the endearing Mr. Jones or the open hearted Penny or the ever-so-lightly tethered Essie? It cannot be done. The comings and goings, the projects upstairs and down, the bustle of the joy cannot be staved off. As the new extended family sits down to dinner, Grandpa offers up a thanksgiving. Well, Sir, here we are again. We want to say thanks once more for everything You’ve done for us. Things seem to be going along fine…. We’ve all got our, health and as far as anything else is concerned we’ll leave it to You. Thank You.
Like everything else in this production, it is a deceptively simple moment that pulls you in and makes you believe in possibility. Just the way you did long, long ago.
You Can’t Take It With You is chicken soup for the heart, the soul and all the bits in between.
You Can’t Take It With You – By Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman; directed by Scott Ellis
WITH: James Earl Jones (Martin Vanderhof), Rose Byrne (Alice), Annaleigh Ashford (Essie), Johanna Day (Mrs. Kirby), Julie Halston (Gay Wellington), Byron Jennings (Mr. Kirby), Patrick Kerr (Mr. DePinna), Fran Kranz (Tony Kirby), Mark Linn-Baker (Paul Sycamore), Kristine Nielsen (Penelope Sycamore), Reg Rogers (Boris Kolenkhov), Elizabeth Ashley (Olga), Will Brill (Ed), Crystal Dickinson (Rheba), Marc Damon Johnson (Donald) and Karl Kenzler (Henderson).
Sets by David Rockwell; costumes by Jane Greenwood; lighting by Donald Holder; sound by Jon Weston; hair and wig design by Tom Watson; music by Jason Robert Brown; fight director, Thomas Schall; production stage manager, Jennifer Rae Moore; technical supervision by Hudson Theatrical Associates; associate producers, Michael Crea and Steven Strauss; company manager, Bruce Klinger; general manager, Richards/Climan Inc. Presented by Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Jam Theatricals, Dominion Pictures, Gutterman & Winkler, Daryl Roth, Terry Schnuck, Jane Bergère, Caiola Productions, Rebecca Gold, LaRuffa & Hinderliter, Larry Magid, Gabrielle Palitz, Spisto & Kierstead, Sunnyspot Productions, Venuworks Theatricals, Jessica Genick and Will Trice, by special arrangement with Roundabout Theater Company, Todd Haimes, artistic director; Harold Wolpert, managing director; Julia C. Levy, executive director; Sydney Beers, general manager. At the Longacre Theater, 220 West 48th Street, 212-239-6200, telecharge.com. Through Jan. 4. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.