Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - September 28, 2014
You Can’t Take It With You by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. Directed by Scott Ellis. Scenic design by David Rockwell. Costume design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Sound design by Jon Weston. Hair & wig design by Tom Watson. Original music by Jason Robert Brown. Fight direction by Thomas Schall. Caso: James Earl Jones, Rose Byrne, Annaleigh Ashford, Johanna Day, Julie Halston, Byron Jennings, Patrick Kerr, Fran Kranz, Mark Linn-Baker, Kristine Nielsen Reg Rogers, Elizabeth Ashley, Will Brill, Nick Corley, Crystal A. Dickinson, Austin Durant, Marc Damon Johnson, Karl Kenzler, Joe Tapper, Barrett Doss, Ned Noyes, Pippa Pearthree, Charles Turner.
Director Scott Ellis has made his production resolutely 2014 in style and execution (though he has wisely left the three-act structure intact), which would be less of an issue if the play didn’t ooze the 1930s from every pore. But trying to view that era through the sensibilities of today, particularly when the story is about the eternal danger of not paying attention to where and why you are, causes all sorts of problems, even if everything that occurs is, as here, otherwise competent.
It’s evident from the very beginning, too, the moment we first zoom in on Martin Vanderhof’s New York townhouse. The first person we meet is ostensibly Penelope Sycamore, a middle-aged woman ensconced behind a typewriter, though her jittery, wide-eyed persona, and her too-clever, too-pat way of using a living cat as a paperweight instantly makes you considerably more aware of the hilarious history of the actress playing her, Kristine Nielsen. It’s a “bit,” and not done poorly, but it draws you more into Nielsen’s perpetually bemused world than Penelope’s.
She, it turns out, is supposed to be a playwright, though more by avocation than vocation, and regularly churns out simplistic scripts on broad themes (“Labor play, religious play, sex play...”). Why? Because she loves it. And in this house, that’s all that matters.
We see this as we’re slowly introduced to the rest of the clan. Penelope’s husband, Paul (Mark Linn-Baker), is soot-covered, frazzled fireworks maker. Their daughter, Essie (Annaleigh Ashford), literally dances through life, turning any occurrence into a broken-down ballet. Her husband, Ed (Will Brill), breaks into the xylophone at unpredictable intervals. And the patriarch, Martin (James Earl Jones), loves connecting snakes.
The most normal, at least in theory, in Penelope’s other daughter, Alice (Rose Byrne), who... well, she’s so normal, in fact, that the only eccentricity she has is that she’s fallen in love with her company’s vice-president, Tony Kirby (Fran Kranz). When she goes out with him, she structures their dates to minimize exposure to her relatives as much as possible, and her greatest fear is that Tony’s family will meet hers and see exactly what she has to put up with. Which, of course, is exactly what happens in Act II, when Tony brings Dad and Mom (Byron Jennings and Johanna Day) to dinner a day early and they see exactly who the Vanderhofs are. Let’s just say, among other outrages, a group arrest is involved.
It should be a foolproof setup. But it demands both a bold line of demarcation between the Vanderhofs and Kirbys, and the inescapable sense that each side is “right.” And though Jennings and Day are superb at evoking the upper-crust crustiness of their characters and their discomfort navigating the Vanderhofs’ unfamiliar waters, almost no one on the opposing side makes as strong an impression.
Nielsen, as addressed, is playing Nielsen; Linn-Baker does not obviously seem to be playing anything. Though Ashford is a talented musical theatre performer (she most recently appeared on Broadway in Kinky Boots), she at once oversells Essie’s breathless artlessness and spends half her stage time en pointe, making you wonder how awful a ballerina Essie could really be. In Brill’s hands, Ed acts like a hyperventilating 13-year-old, constantly writhing about and making finger guns. Paul’s assistant (who delivered ice to the family one day and never left), Mr. DePinna (Patrick Kerr), is aggressively childlike. Jones, as his luxurious voice insists, commands authority, but is too nonspecific to convince as a man who gave up a fortune merely to be happy.
Most inexplicably, Byrne’s Alice is, on some level, the weirdest of all: antsy, brittle, and whiny, like a stereotypical old-maid librarian doing stand-up. The impression she gives is of an actor longing to be in on the fun, rather than realizing that she’s the necessary catalyst by which the fun happens. But without an Alice who anchors the weirdness, who’s conceivable as also being Tony’s glittering wife, the underlying conflict makes no sense — and packs no punch — whatsoever.
Most of the laughs come from either the pitch-perfect Jennings and Day or the actors playing the satellite figures the Vanderhofs attract. Crystal A. Dickinson and Marc Damon Johnson do well underplaying the Vanderhofs’ maid and her relief-collecting boyfriend; and Karl Kenzler makes the most of his tiny role as a tax collector sent to make sure Martin pays what he owes. Better still are Reg Rogers, gloweringly right as Essie’s impatient dance instructor; Elizabeth Ashley, who brings sweeping grandness to her part of a Russian grand duchess relegated to working as a diner waitress; and Julie Halston, a typical scream (if, again, too modern) as the inebriation-prone actress Penelope gets to read one of her plays.
But even the best performers are hampered by Ellis’s lurching pacing and unnecessary caffeination; You Can’t Take It With You must be a play of layered comedy, where the gradually building insanity explodes completely only in Act II, and the lack of any serenity or focus from the actors precludes that. Costume designer Jane Greenwood and lighting designer Donald Holder do their jobs well, but David Rockwell has wildly misconceived the set, which shrinks the Vanderhof home to fit on a revolve that, as far as I could tell, is used only to spoil the sight gags built into the script. A full-stage set and curtain would enable the fun, not cripple it.
That, of course, is 1930s thinking that has little place if the goal is to keep everything moving all the time. But stillness can be a virtue, as you’re reminded the two times Martin, seated with his family at the dinner table, says grace, and the action freezes so Jones can do what he does best: intone, simply and profoundly. “Of course we want to keep our health,” Martin says, barely suppressing a smile, “but as far as anything else is concerned, we’ll leave it to You.” With this You Can’t Take It With You, one cannot help but wish Ellis would more frequently heed exactly that advice.