NEW YORK—Offering some gentle life lessons, a bit of romance, and a whole lot of fun, “You Can’t Take It With You,” the 1937 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, makes a triumphant return to Broadway.
The world is full of eccentric families, but the one at the New York home of Martin Vanderhof (James Earl Jones), comprised of three generations, is in a class by itself.
Martin is the patriarch of the clan, a man who abruptly quit his job 35 years earlier, preferring instead to take the time to enjoy life.
His daughter, Penelope (Kristine Nielsen), has spent the last eight years writing plays (“The Sex Play,” “The War Play,” and so on). Her husband, Paul (Mark Linn-Baker), makes fireworks in the basement with the help of Mr. DePinna (Patrick Kerr), a fellow who dropped by several years ago and ended up staying.
Penny’s daughter, Essie (Annaleigh Ashford), continually practices dance routines while running a candy business out of the house. Essie’s husband, Ed (Will Brill), offers his wife musical accompaniment on the xylophone and reprints sentences by Trotsky.
Others dropping by include Boris Kolenkhov (Reg Rogers), a Russian expatriate and Essie’s dance teacher; and the former Grand Duchess Olga (Elizabeth Ashley), who now works in a restaurant in Times Square.
A sharp contrast to this colorful entourage is Alice (Rose Byrne), Penelope’s somewhat conservative daughter. She works as a secretary on Wall Street where she’s fallen in love with Tony Kirby (Fran Kranz), the boss’s son.
When things start to get serious between them, Tony wants to bring his parents over to meet her family, a prospect that fills Alice with dread. It’s not that Alice doesn’t love her family, she’d just prefer Tony’s parents get to know them in very small doses.
When said gathering doesn’t work out—for reasons which include a drunken actress (Julie Halston), a box of snakes, a jar of pig’s feet, and Mr. DePinna clad in a toga—it looks like any chance Alice and Tony have for happiness is gone. Gone, that is, unless certain people can be made to see otherwise.
The real strength of the show is Scott Ellis’s strong direction and the stellar cast, who seem to be having a wonderful time with the material. These combine to present a collection of endearing characters who are simply fun to be around, living life at their own pace and letting reality take care of itself.
Another important factor is the strong feeling of family that’s created. We see their bonds by the deep affection these people have for one another, their encouragement of each other’s separate pursuits, their delight at Alice’s romance, and their attempts to set things right for her when things don’t go well.
Jones makes a fine head of the house, dispensing words of wisdom with a twinkle in his eye and an air of quiet experience.
Nielsen is a scream as Penelope, a woman with a heart of gold and completely sure of her own talent, no matter what anybody else thinks.
Ashford is positively brilliant as the always-in-motion Essie—stealing every scene she’s in with her various dance movements, no matter the situation.
Linn-Baker is nicely earnest as Paul, if perhaps a bit befuddled at times. These qualities also appear in Kerr’s very deadpan portrayal of Mr. DePinna.
Byrne is good as Alice, the restrained one in the family. She does have her own unbridled moments at times, such as screaming in delight when she first tells everyone about Tony.
Johanna Day and Bryan Jennings are fine as Tony’s parent’s, both doing the requisite slow burns. Jennings is especially very good in that department.
Kranz works very well as Tony, a young man with dreams of his own and who has a nice onstage chemistry with Byrne.
Brill does a nice turn as the somewhat quirky Ed, and Rogers goes enjoyably over the top as Kolenkhov. Also deserving of mention are Ashley and Halston, both adding just the right touch of insanity to the general situation with their respective roles.
Everybody plays their roles perfectly straight, thus making things seem all the more hilarious.
Another important factor is David Rockwell’s absolutely wonderful set, showing the Vanderhof home crammed from floor to ceiling with assorted bric-a-brac. It’s kind of like a curio shop taken to the extreme, yet with a wonderful homey feel.
The costumes by Jane Greenwood are also quite good, the more somber clothes worn in the final act helping to add to the gravity of the situation.
Meaning exactly what the title says with a lesson everyone should take away with them, “You Can’t Take It With You” is a sheer delight.
Also in the cast are Crystal Dickinson, Marc Damon Johnson, Karl Kenzler, Nick Corley, Austin Durant, and Joe Tapper.
‘You Can’t Take It With You’
220 West 48th Street
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or telecharge.com
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Closes: Jan. 4, 2015
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.