Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

A Most Auspicious Occasion: First Class Revival of Classic American Comedy Inaugurates Impressive New Theater

Brandi Wooten
The Monmouth County based Two River Theater Company has mounted the classic Kaufman-Hart farce You Can't Take it With You on a grand scale with a production that would do honor to any major regional theatre. However, as important and satisfying as this is, such good news must play second fiddle to the fact that, thanks to the folks at Two River and their benefactors, Red Bank, Monmouth County and all of New Jersey have acquired an exceptionally beautiful, playable and audience friendly new theatre which could revitalize the immediate area and the entire New Jersey theatre scene. If Two River is able to maintain the high standard which it has set for itself with its current production, Red Bank, only about an hour and 15 minutes by car from Manhattan (and easily accessible by train from Penn Station), will become a major get away destination for theatre loving New Yorkers.

A traditional three-act comedy, the 1936 Pulitzer Prize winner You Can't Take It With You unfolds in the New York City house of the cheerfully eccentric Sycamore family. The only luxury that interests them is the luxury of time and freedom to pursue whatever activity seizes their passion. Grandpa Martin Vanderhof (J. R. Horne) has not worked (or paid his taxes) since dropping out of the corporate rat race thirty-five years ago. Wandering about and enjoying the beauty of each day is his vocation. Papa Paul Sycamore (Christian Kauffmann), a self styled inventor, spends most of his time puttering around the basement, making fireworks with his buddy, Mr. De Penna (George C. Hosmer). The latter has remained in the household since coming to deliver ice eight years earlier. Mama Penny Sycamore (Peggy Cosgrave) writes (but never finishes) plays because someone delivered a typewriter to the house. And on and on, with additional household members and assorted visitors.

There is one "normal" family member. Daughter Alice (Jenn Miller Cribbs) is a sweet 9 to 5 working girl employed in a stock brokerage house. Alice is going out with her employer's son, Tony Kirby (Nathan Blew). They are in love and Alice is planning on inviting Tony and his tony parents to the Sycamore home for dinner. Of course, various eccentricities (human and other) will be cleared away in time for the big dinner.

Act two provides the major comic set piece. As soon as we see the Sycamore household and their acolytes in full eccentric disorder planning the next night's dinner with the Kirbys, we anticipate with delight the prospect of who's coming to dinner one night earlier than expected. Our highest expectations for the dinner are fulfilled by the ever-escalating mad creativity of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, and the delightful cast of farceurs under the nimble and inventive direction of Robert M. Rechnitz. The high spirited humor is thereafter continued through the happy resolution of the third act.

The strong 19-member ensemble is smooth and delightful throughout. Peggy Cosgrave's Penny has a wonderful detached quality. Her humorous persona of a woman completely and inappropriately into her own world of "artistic" endeavor is a constant delight. Brandi Wooten in the role of Alice's would-be ballerina sister, Essie, is always in motion and never neglects to inject humor into her delightful dancing mania.

Kathleen Doyle's turn as the drunkard actress picked up on a bus by Penny and brought home to read her play is exceptionally funny. Jenn Miller Cribbs and Nathan Blew are thoroughly likeable as the young lovers. Cribbs fully amplifies the shrewd Kaufman and Hart decision to have Alice love her family and truly not be ashamed of them.

William Bogert is most engaging as the decent, always gentlemanly, befuddled and confused Mr. Kirby. Lisa McMillan as a former Tsarist royal now employed as a waitress conveys a poignant dignity while mining the humor of the incongruity between her haughtiness and the reality of her situation. Kaci M. Fannin and Robert Jason Jackson are funny and fine in the tricky roles of the family cook, Reba, and her boyfriend, Donald.

It appears that Two River founder and executive producer Robert M. Rechnitz has succeeded so well here because he is aware that there are character nuances present that raise You Can't Take It With You above most American farce and situation comedy. It is these nuances that keep us continually involved and smiling between the big comic set pieces.

The very large, richly detailed set by Neil Prince is a beauty. A grand, old house gone somewhat to seed, it is both realistic and slightly skewed (especially in its cartoon-like roof and skyline). Stairways and alcoves abound. It has several areas overrun with the clutter and detritus which mirror the eccentricities of the Sycamores and provides a number of distinct playing areas. A circular stage floor extending beyond the thrust is employed. Prince's design allows the director to bring much of the play downstage center while providing clear sightlines throughout the theater.

In You Can't Take It With You, Tony, after returning from an evening at the ballet with Alice, says "Of course, just walking inside any theatre gives me a thrill." Well, just wait until you see the new Two River Theater on the banks of the Navesink River. The exterior architecture for the new structure matches the historic industrial look of downtown Red Bank's arts and antiques district. It is artfully overlaid with a glass front which lightly lends a modern touch to the brick structure. Beyond the commodious lobby is a stunning 349-seat theater with a high and wide proscenium from which a large thrust stage, gently narrowing to the front, projects into the auditorium beyond the side sections of the first several circularly curved rows. This allows for a great deal of intimacy as it brings the entire audience close to the stage (a theater brochure states that no seat is more than 36 feet from it). The seating is steeply banked for unobstructed viewing. The colors (in various shades of brown, orange and yellow) are light, bright and warm. The design of the theater manages to combine intimacy with a sense of size and luxury which is quite special.

While it is always true that it is the quality of the stagecraft that matters most, a facility as grand as the Two River Company Theater is capable of inspiring artistic achievement. Two River has led a nomadic life since its beginnings in 1994 at Monmouth State College. Starting here and now, it has a high profile, beautiful home which will attract audiences and supporters in increased numbers, and provides a superlative working environment for artists. The new facility, which has clearly energized the company, is fit for a major regional theatre. In the years ahead, it will be exciting to see if the Two River Theatre Company is able to attain such exalted status.

Judging by the extravagantly staged, delightfully directed and acted You Can't Take It With You, the Two River Theatre Company may well be up to the task.

You Can't Take It With You continues performances through May 22, 2005 (Wed-Sat 8 PM; Sun 3 PM; and Sat Mat 5/21 4 PM; additional performance 5/22 7 PM) at the Two River Theatre, 21 Bridge Street, Red Bank, New Jersey 07701; box office 732-345-1400; online

You Can't Take It With You by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman; directed by Robert M. Rechnitz

Penelope Sycamore .......... Peggy Cosgrave
Essie .......... Brandi Wooten
Rheba .......... Kaci M. Fannin
Paul Sycamore .......... Christian Kauffmann
Mr. De Pinna .......... George C. Hosmer
Ed .......... Jody Madaras
Donald .......... Robert Jason Jackson
Martin Vanderhof .......... J.R. Horne
Alice .......... Jenn Miller Cribbs
Henderson .......... Kevin W. Hauver
Tony Kirby .......... .Nathan Blew
Boris Kolenkhov .......... Robert Ousley
Gay Wellington .......... Kathleen Doyle
Mr. Kirby ........... William Bogert
Mrs. Kirby .......... Darrie Lawrence
Man 1 .......... Jim Jennings
Man 2 .......... Rob McBurnie
Man 3 .......... Dan Johnson
Olga .......... Lisa McMillan

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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