Monday, April 29, 2019

IRT's 'You Can't Take It With You': The lesson still applies, though the examination ages

Fun finale: All improbabilities are reconciled as 'You Can't Take It With You' privileges fun.
Two cheeky young playwrights, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, caused a sensation in 1937 with an energetic Broadway comedy trumpeting a message in its title: "You Can't Take It With You." It ran for 837 performances and won that year's Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Indiana Repertory Theatre just this weekend opened its second-ever production of the show, wisely resisting all possible temptations to update it. Its gallimaufry of sight gags and witticisms, threaded throughout the dizzyingly paced dialogue within one Manhattan household and its visitors, evokes an era. America was recovering uneasily from the Depression. Everyone was being urged to get with the system that had recently let them down. Going against the grain is discouraged; the range of expressing oneself freely is tightly prescribed.

True, the message of tolerance that prevails at the end gives the show some claim to heralding today's concerns. Perhaps the individualism that the Sycamore family represents has run amok over the last 80 years, but there are still tenuous pressures to conform to whatever standards still apply across the American mainstream. Those pressures, more entrenched in 1937, are shown at the end to be insufficient to provide the happiness the Sycamore family embodies in a tumultuous, live-and-let-live manner. The sanguine paterfamilias, Martin Vanderhof, played with an air of offhand, trenchant wisdom by Robert Elliott, provides the role model.

Seen Sunday afternoon, "You Can't Take It With You" in this 2019 version owes much to the brio of Peter Amster's direction. The coordinated chaos that the large cast exhibits is unrelenting. The way the peculiar interests and idiosyncrasies of the characters manifest themselves speaks to Kaufman and Hart's powers  of observation and insouciant vigor.

But over time the verbal wit has become somewhat stale. The winks and nods about sexual matters show "You Can't Take It With You" to be a period piece. Some topical references have wisely been dropped: When Penelope Sycamore, the eccentric mother of two nubile young women, Essie and Alice, observes of the domestic help Rheba and her boyfriend, Donald, "They're awfully cute... sort of like Porgy and Bess," the line is missing at IRT. Good thing, insofar as the African-American identity of the couple is blurred in IRT's casting. Still, the cut does mean that we miss an insight into the limits of the household's fair-minded white liberalism. Porgy and Bess are probably the only black lovers that would come to Penelope's mind, though the comparison is wildly inappropriate. Besides, Penelope is played here by Indianapolis' best known African-American actress, Milicent Wright, who brightly makes the role her own at every turn.

So, today "You Can't Take It With You" must be played for its savor over its substance. And the stew is well-spiced. Essie, the daughter with stretched-out aspirations to be a ballet dancer, moves and talks in a delightfully air-headed way in the performance of Mehry Eslaminia. Her incorporation of balletic positions, gestures, and cliches throughout sums up the way in which this old wine, vintage 1937, sparkles in its new bottle.

Tony and Alice envision a life of happiness together.
Sister Alice is shown to be fully in love with her unusual family and the stray people it has virtually adopted. Janyce Carabollo was totally convincing as both ingenuous and shrewd enough to eagerly anticipate her escape, thanks to an endearing marriage proposal from her boss, Tony Kirby, scion of a prosperous Wall Street financier. There's reason enough for her anxiety about the inevitable first meeting of the two families, despite the prosperous-looking milieu. I don't know much about the Upper West Side in the 1930s, not having lived there (and briefly) until the 1940s, but Linda Buchanan's set is one in the IRT tradition of I-want-to-live-there! magnificence. I'm trying to understand where the money came from, given Vanderhof's long self-exile from the workaday world.

It turns out Tony, likewise nervous, is nursing a scheme involving a family revelation, which he disguises as a scheduling mistake. That premature first encounter brings the disparity between the Kirby family and the Sycamore/Vanderhof melange to a rapid boil. This is one of the triumphs of the Kaufman/Hart dramaturgy, and still works today, despite the play's dated aspects. The scene hits the heights of this production.

Aaron Kirby plays Tony, ardent and resourceful as a young lover overcoming great odds.  The obstacles are his parents, chiefly his stuffed-shirt father, played with ample self-possession (eventually shaken) by David Lively. Carmen Roman is the equally straitlaced Mrs. Kirby, whose veneer cracks winningly during a parlor game engineered by Penelope to relieve the social awkwardness.

Among the supporting roles of unshakable outsiders, there is notably Ansley Valentine as  Mr. De Pinna, who
Mr. De Pinna brings his pocketry a little to close to the taxman as Paul Sycamore looks on.
now assists Paul, the girls' dad and Penelope's husband in self-taught experiments with fireworks in the basement. It really doesn't count as a spoiler to reveal that there will be explosions, of course. James Leaming intensely plays the self-absorbed experimenter, the head of a family who can never bear to put away childish things, contrary to the famous teaching of St. Paul. Like Penelope's restless obsession with writing plays, the parents' hobbies threaten their devotion to family but luckily stop short of demolishing it.

Buzzing constantly while stuck to the household flypaper is another visitor, the Russian ballet teacher Boris Kolenkhov, to whom Joey Collins gives a heavy stage accent recalling Boris Badenov of the "Rocky and Bulwinkle" cartoon series. He's no villain, however, just a black-bread pessimist a bit unsettling to the family, despite his flattering attentions to Essie and Rheba.

Rheba and Donald get salt-of-the-earth impersonations from Brianna Milan and Adam Tran. Carlos Medina Maldonado rounds out the display of family artistic pretensions as the xylophonist-composer Ed, Essie's husband. (I'm not sure why in a family of individualists this young couple needs Vanderhof's approval to make a baby; that's one of those little sniggers the playwrights must have felt they had to insert.) Adding further gloss to this mildly Hogarthian group portrait are Molly Garner as an inebriated actress brought in to critique Penelope's plays and in no condition to do so and Scot Greenwell as a stern, uptight taxman trying to persuade Martin to wipe the slate clean on his income-tax delinquency.

Jan Lucas comes on formidably near the end as a class-conscious Russian aristocrat in exile who's enough of a party animal to commandeer the kitchen and produce a celebratory feast of blintzes. Everyone then breaks into one of the contemporary songs that pop up now and then throughout. Turning Johnny Mercer's revenge scenario on its head, they sing appropriately: "So you found someone who set you back on your heels — goody goody!" With basement detonations, hard-won enlightenment and love all leading the way, being set back on one's heels is what this production urges everyone who sees it to welcome.


[Photos by Zach Rosing]






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