The story is a classic meet cute tale. Alice Sycamore (Rose Byrne), who works at Kirby and Co. at 62 Wall Street, has fallen in love with the boss’ son Tony Kirby (Fran Kranz) who is equally smitten with her. However, she doesn’t want to risk having the two families meet as she is the only conventional member of her clan. In a brownstone around the corner from Columbia University live three generations of Alice’s family, all doing their own thing and supremely contented.
Her grandfather (Jones) collects snakes, attends commencement and generally has fun. Her mother Penny (Kristine Nielsen) has been writing plays for the last eight years since a typewriter was mistakenly delivered to the house. Her father Paul (Mark Linn-Baker) and his friend Mr. De Pinna (Patrick Kerr) (who came to deliver the ice eight years ago and just stayed) make fireworks in the basement to sell for the 4th of July. Alice’s older sister Essie (Annaleigh Ashford) has been studying ballet as an adult for the last eight years with a mad Russian, while her husband Ed (Will Brill) plays the xylophone and delivers the homemade candy that Essie creates. And none of them have ever paid income tax and don’t think they believe in it. All are having a wonderful time and the most interesting things happen every day in the Sycamore household – unless you are a strict traditionalist and then you might be little upset by all the commotion.
When Alice and Tony are ready to become engaged, it is time for the families to meet. Alice carefully plans the dinner party and getting Penny’s typewriter, Ed’s xylophone and Grandpa’s snakes out of the living area and into the basement. And then Mr. and Mrs. Kirby (Byron Jennings and Johanna Day) and Tony arrive a night early. Without the careful preparations, everything that Alice hoped to hide is out in the open. Even the mad Russian ballet teacher is in attendance and a drunken actress (Julie Halston) that Penny hoped to interest in one of her plays. Of course, Mr. Kirby brings his indigestion with him while all three of the Kirbys are dressed in evening clothes. But then Penny provokes the Kirbys to reveal their deepest feelings and secrets with a game that she says “any fool can play.”
With all the people today who work at jobs they dislike only to make a living, the play’s third act message is extremely relevant once again. Thirty-five years before the play starts Grandfather Martin Vanderhof started up to his office in the elevator and decided that he did not enjoy his work. So he just stopped and he has been enjoying himself ever since. Since you can’t take it with you, you might as well do the things you enjoy before it is too late since none of us live forever. The beatniks, the hippies, the flower children all knew this – you will be happier if you spend your time doing the things you enjoy rather than spending most of your time doing things you resent. Tony has come to realize this but his unhappy parents still have to have their eyes opened.
The play has a kind of zany humor that defies time, and other than the fact that income tax was only 23 years old when the play was first produced, the humor hasn’t dated one bit. Part of the fun is that the eccentric cast of characters has no idea that other people might find them strange. Essie doesn’t recognize Beethoven when she hears it nor is she aware that she is too old to become a ballerina, and Penny tends to get everything just a little bit wrong: Department of Justice employees to her are “J-Men.” In his discus thrower’s costume, Mr. DePinna refuses to believe that he looks any different than he did eight years earlier when Penny first started painting him – before he started to lose his hair. Tony tells Alice he wouldn’t trade the evening for “all the rice in China” but Alice doesn’t know how much that is.
Director Ellis’ impeccable cast gets a laugh on all the jokes as well as the colorful nuances in this slightly tall tale. James Earl Jones brings a seriousness and a sincerity to his role as head of the family without sacrificing one iota of his sense of humor. Byrne, known for her roles in TV’s Damages and the film hit Bridesmaids, is decidedly girlish as Alice in love, but with her feet firmly planted on the ground. As her mother Penny, Nielsen who dazzled Broadway as Sonia in Christopher Durang’s Tony Award-winning comedy last season, is just as ditzy as a creative person who just can’t seem to find her niche. Annaleigh Ashford who was nominated for all of Broadway’s major acting awards for her role in Kinky Boots is seriously demented as the mediocre dancer who plugs along relentlessly, without any awareness of how bad she really is.
As Mr. Kirby, Jennings is suitably stuffy and conservative, a sharp contrast to the free-spirited denizens of the Sycamore household. Among smaller roles, Elizabeth Ashley plays a Russian Grand Duchess with the common touch as well as all of the stately superiority of which she is capable. Halston as the dipsomaniac actress has a staircase scene that is worthy of a show of its own. The rest of the large cast of 19 all have their big moments.
The play takes place on David Rockwell’s splendid setting which, while the audience takes their seats, reveals the porch of the Sycamore-Vanderhof blue clapboard residence sandwiched between two stone apartment houses. When the play begins, the house rotates and we are in one of the most lived in and cluttered living room-dining rooms ever seen on Broadway. The walls are simply covered with paintings, souvenirs of travel, bric-a-brac, stuffed animals, etc., leaving hardly any room for the wood-paneling and red walls of the room to show through. This is a house where people enjoy themselves with hobbies.
Jane Greenwood has created a veritable fashion show of 1930’s style costumes for the many characters of varying social and economic levels. The look of the period is also enhanced by Tom Watson’s hair and wig designs. Aside from the original music by this year’s Tony Award-winning composer Jason Robert Brown, the sound design by Jon Weston features popular songs of the period.
This new production of You Can’t Take It with You proves that not only has the comedy passed the test of time, it also remains a wonderful evening in the theater. It may be set in the 1930’s but America in 2014 needs to hear its message all over again. And it is still joyful and uproarious as it shows up real human foibles of which people are still prone.
You Can’t Take It with You (through February 22, 2015)
Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212- 239-6200 or visit http://www.youcanttakeitwithyoubroadway.com
Running time: two hours and 20 minutes including two intermissions