Saturday, October 11, 2014

Broadway Review—"You Can't Take It With You"

You Can't Take It With You
Written by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman; directed by Scott Ellis
Performances through January 4, 2015
Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street, New York, NY

Nielsen, Byrne and Jones in You Can't Take It With You (photo: Joan Marcus)
You Can't Take It With You, Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's most enduring play, is an hilarious forerunner of the lovably eccentric family TV sitcoms and movies that followed in its wake: debuting on Broadway in 1936, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama the next year and was 1938's Oscar-winning Best Picture, directed by Frank Capra (who also won an Oscar).

For its latest stage incarnation, savvy director Scott Ellis has assembled a juggernaut cast as the Vanderhof family: James Earl Jones as lovable grampa Martin, Kristine Nielsen and Mark Linn-Baker as his daffy daughter Penelope and her equally daft husband Paul, Annaleigh Ashford and Will Brill as their ballet-dancing daughter Essie and her xylophone-playing husband Ed, and Rose Byrne (in a delectable Broadway debut) and Fran Krantz as their semi-normal daughter Alice and Alice's rich boss's son Tony, whom she is dating.

These people deliciously interact with one another and others who find themselves in the family's crammed Manhattan house; thanks to Martin's refusal to pay his income tax and Ed's hobby of printing Communist slogans and passing them around the city, the authorities arrive unannounced for a bust that nets everyone, even Tony and his straitlaced parents, who happen to be visiting one day earlier than Alice had planned. 

This material, which precariously teeters between endearing daftness and sentimental cuteness (the latter of which Capra's film unsurprisingly milked to the hilt), needs to be handled precisely to work perfectly, and Ellis corrals his talented cast members to mesh as a cohesive ensemble at the same time they play close to the edge of caricature. This has the effect of having it both ways, as the goofy behavior never threatens and the family's closeness is never in doubt: there's poignancy in the way the Vanderhofs stick up for one another, however silly it all becomes by play's end. 

David Rockwell's colossal set of the interior of the Vanderhof house—which even moves so we can see the lovingly rendered exterior before each act as well as for the briefest of scenes when Alice and Tony return home from a date—scatters around the richly appointed living room so much interesting bric-a-brac in every nook and cranny that one could study it for all 2-1/2 hours of the performance without catching everything. It physicalizes the family's cluttered but coherent existence: everything (and everyone) is in its rightful place.

In an accomplished cast, standouts are the lovely Byrne, who makes Alice irresistible instead of a dullard and Ashford, whose dynamic klutziness and dazzling virtuosity on pointe—she's either spinning or just about to, a whirling dervish or cartoonish Tasmanian Devil—underline her delightful Essie. There's also wonderful work from performers who play Russians that transform the plot even more outlandishly: Reg Rogers as an hilariously unprofessional dance teacher Boris, and none other than Elizabeth Ashley, who swoops in at the end as former Grand Duchess Olga to, of all things, make blintzes. Yes, blintzes.

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