“I feel like this show isn’t your thing.” It was intermission at You Can’t Take it With You and I was informing my friends Ann and Jodi of their opinions on Broadway’s newest revival. They assured me that they were in fact enjoying themselves plenty, thank you very much. (Maybe I should stick to forming my own opinions?) The three of us had decided to see You Can’t Take it With You for a few major reasons: first, it was Jodi’s birthday (happy birthday Jodi!) and we wanted to celebrate. Second, our friend and fellow NYC Redbird* Joe was in the cast. And third, who doesn’t want to see a first-class revival of a first-class comedy?
I’d actually never seen You Can’t Take it With You, though I’d read it ages ago and have always considered it my favorite of the Kaufman and Hart plays. It’s about the Sycamores, a family that prides itself on being noncomformist and creative. Put more simply: they are totally lovable weirdos. When Alice (Rose Byrne) brings her strait-laced boyfriend (and his stuck-up parents) over, lots of zany high jinks ensue.
Long story short: it’s a strong production. I mean, the cast has oodles of talent. James Earl Jones seems to be enjoying himself quite a bit as patriarch Martin. Annaleigh Ashford is great as lousy ballerina Essie. (Boy can she execute physical comedy perfectly, or what?) And I hate to pick favorites, but I’ll be unfair and pick Kristine Nielsen as the most hilarious of the bunch. She’s loopy and ridiculous as the easily distracted mother/playwright/artist/pot-stirrer Penny.
So why would I suspect Ann and Jodi wouldn’t like it? Well, I had a few reservations myself. It does feel creaky. The first act is almost entirely a set-up for the second act — which is by far the best part of the show — while the third act mostly wraps things up. Shows are structured so differently now. Even the way Alice and her boyfriend speak to each other would never fly onstage today:
Tony: Thank God I’m vice-president. I can dictate to you all day. “Dear Miss Sycamore: I love you, I love you, I love you.”
Alice: Oh, darling! You’re such a fool.
And then there’s the ending, which is definitely a little more sentimental than it needs to be. Now I’m generally a sucker for anything old-fashioned, but the earnest tone did jar me a bit. There’s a speech about prizing life over money, because you can’t take it with you, after all. I’m probably just used to the way things are written today. A speech like that in a modern play, for example, would probably be dripping in irony.
In any case, the escapist feel is a huge part of the charm of this show. It feels like a breath of fresh air; I can just imagine how transported theatergoers felt to come upon such a well-crafted screwball comedy during the long Great Depression. Having seen (and liked!) Act One earlier this year — which tells the story of Kaufman and Hart’s first meeting and collaboration — I felt particularly primed to enjoy You Can’t Take it With You. (It’s like reading In Cold Blood after seeing Capote.)
And finally, unlike practically every other old-fashioned play, this one doesn’t overstay its welcome**. The 7pm show ended at 9:20, and we had plenty of time to go backstage and congratulate Joe on a great show (and job well done in his small role). I’m even tempted to go back in a few weeks, when (in an art-imitates-life moment) Joe’s going to go on as Annaleigh’s husband.
My Grade: B+
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes with 2 (!) intermissions
Ticket price: Ann and Jodi’s treat (thank you!)
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: 50/50
* — There are, surprisingly enough, quite a few theater/Broadway types in the New York City Cardinals fans group.
** — HOW on earth did theatergoers in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s tolerate so many three hour shows?