YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU
by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
MainStage Irving-Las Colinas
Directed by Dave Schmidt
Set Designer - Ellen Mizener
Lighting Designer - Sam Nance
Costume Designer - Karen Burks
Properties - Jo Anne Hull
Sound Designer - Jeff Mizener
Stage Manager - Lois Bair
CAST in order of appearance
Laura Jones - Penelope Sycamore
Stephanie Seidler - Essie
Neeley Jonea - Rheba
Michael McNiel - Paul Sycamore
Clayton Cunningham - Mr. De Pinna
Craig Boleman - Ed
J.R. Bradford - Donald
Roberts Banks - Martin Vanderhof
Ashlie Kirkpatrick - Alice Sycamore
Bob Billingsley - Henderson
Charles Maxham - Tony Kirby
Scott Nixon - Boris Kolenkhov
Angela Allen - Gay Wellington
Neil Rogers - Mr. Kirby
Debbie Hurley - Mrs. Kirby
James West, Marvin Pasek and Bob Billingsley - Three G Men
Sheila Rose - Olga
Reviewed Performance 5/27/2011
Reviewed by Mary L. Clark, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
You can't take it with you ? oh, how true that is. Until the current recession, the high rate of unemployment and people's general dissatisfaction with the state of the country, it hadn't occurred to me the many parallels between our lives today and George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's classic comedy, You Can't Take It With You, ICT Mainstage's current production at Irving Arts Center Dupree Theater.
This 1936 play concerned individualism, uniqueness and artistic anarchy versus government, the establishment and the status quo. It was also about how the word "family" could take on many definitions.
Kaufman and Hart obviously relished parodying their current issues ? much like today's Saturday Night Live ? with references to FDR, Communism, Russia and the subsequent influx of immigrants here after their revolution, the elitists, and the bohemians; no one was spared the comic sword.
The plot was pretty simple ? the fun-loving Sycamore family, headed by Martin "Grandpa" Vanderhof, took eccentricity to heart as each member loved life and all the opportunities it offered to express themselves. Mom was now a playwright and artist, Dad created newer and bigger fireworks, one daughter was on the long term ballerina plan while her Russian teacher commented "she steenks". People tended to come to the Sycamore home and stay on for years. On the other spectrum was older daughter, Alice, who, while loving her family, longed for "normalcy" in her life and with her recent engagement to the son of a stuffy, aristocratic family of business. Complications with the IRS, a drunken actress, mistaken intentions and a Russian duchess/waitress and we had all the ingredients for side-splitting laughter and a hilarious evening at the theatre.
That's what one would believe as the first act unfolded and we were introduced to each character and their peculiarities. But that's as far as it went and it never rose to the level of screwball comedy essential to juxtapose the conservative, no nonsense family Alice was marrying into. Director Dave Schmidt seemed to make safe choices rather than let the mayhem rip. The family was more the Ingles family than The Marx Brothers, more Ozzie and Harriet than Lucy and Desi. They were like a Rockwall painting of the 1940's than the last vestige of bohemian artistic freedom before the plummet into WWII and the rise of the conservative era in its wake. There was no black and white; it was all a medium shade of gray.
Taking their cue from the director, the designers ? from set to costumes to props ? all made safer choices with this play. Ellen Mizener's set was the most traditional I had seen in quite some time. She created a half wall design, revealing deep blue curtains behind. A back wall front door/foyer with stairs leading up opened to the living room/dining room/parlor/study all in one. Maybe Mizener was playing homage to how most sets were designed in the 1930's but, rather than surrounding the family in bright colors and fabrics, she decorated in tones of blue, neat wallpaper, sheer curtain windows, and odds and ends furniture from different time periods. Old family portraits and photos covered the walls and there were only hints of all the many artistic endeavors each person had attempted and abandoned ? a violin, a mask, a dressmaker mannequin, and while you understood this family's style, it needed to be so much more but, instead, ended up all too neat, too ordinary, too everyday.
The same went for the properties by Jo Anne Hull. More is never enough in You Can't Take It With You and it was difficult to discover these people's amazing eccentricities by what was in the room. Stacks of books, wild paintings, huge masks, and gargantuan fireworks would have better suited this larger than life group.
Speaking of fireworks, I understood the decision to not have sonic boom explosions so the use of colored lights flashing on the audience and firework gobos on the proscenium walls was a clever substitution by Lighting Designer Sam Nance. There was one distraction, however, in a pink filter at the living room entrance that made the actor's costumes odd shades. One man's suit seemed, at his entrance, to be lavender, then switched to gray as he moved into the room!
Karen Burks' costumes also went the way of the director's vision and were All-American and straight-laced with the exception of the actress. I did enjoy the Harold Lloyd look-alike IRS agent, Henderson, with pale face, round black glasses and straw boater hat. Burk did not allow the characters to express themselves in their clothing. There was no freedom in their fabrics and colors. Their hairstyles were neat and tidy and showed zero individualism.
The Sunday matinee audience was obviously enjoying the songs of that period, sung by Fred Astaire, Jimmy Durante and others and chosen by Sound Designer Jeff Mizener. His lower decibel firework explosions were still effective and I wish I had a doorbell as upscale as the Westminster chime he used.
The eighteen actors in You Can't Take It With You were all easily capable of taking their characters to that higher lever and become memorable instead of mildly amusing as directed. Schmidt harnessed his ensemble and relied only on the script to bring in the laughs. The pace was incredibly slow ? this is a family with ADD who jump from one creative idea to another, but in this production were mild-mannered and polite. Head of the house, Martin Vanderhof (Robert Banks) was more Grandpa Walton when he should have been like the king's fool ? crazy on the outside but also the wisest man in the kingdom. On the other hand, conservative Alice Sycamore (Ashlie Kirkpatrick) and her fianc? Tony Kirby (Charles Maxham) were more excitable and jumpy than the other Sycamores.
Along with Mrs. & Mr. Kirby (Debbie Hurley & Neil Rogers), they were written to be polar opposites of the Sycamores. The point was this family did not see itself as odd or different. Kaufman and Hart wrote them as the breath of fresh air for a world becoming ever more hollow and stale, and when the two families met and a situation went terribly wrong, the Kirbys were to become the Sycamores' reality check. We never saw the light bulb go off for either family.
Some characters with fewer scenes stood out more than the main characters. Housekeeper Rheba (Neeley Jonea) and her husband Donald (J.R. Bradford) kept their energy and pace lively. I did cringe a bit at the Porgy and Bess reference and Donald's remark that it "messed up his week" to have to stand in the welfare line for 30 minutes but this was 1936 after all and reminded me we still have a long way to go. Mr. De Pinna, the iceman who came and stayed ten years ago, was delightfully played by Clayton Cunningham. He had that magic, that love for life, that spark which should have enveloped all the rest. Scott Nixon was the colorful, boisterous Russian dance teacher/anarchist, Boris Kolenkhox, with a flamboyant style that, again, was missing from the family.
ICT, however, knew its subscribers and their likes and, from the applause and ovations, it was apparent the audience enjoyed themselves thoroughly. After all, that is why we go to the theatre ? sometimes to simply be entertained. Since you really can't take it with you, you might as well, as the song goes, "live" (by going to ICT Mainstage), "love" (you will still love this production) "and laugh at it all" (there are plenty of laughs to be found). You Can't Take It With You is a timeless comedy gem with some lessons on the joys of life we all need to be reminded of these days.
You Can't Take It With You
ICT Mainstage, Dupree Theater, Irving Arts Center
3333 N. MacArthur Blvd., Irving, TX 75062
Plays through June 11th
Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sunday at 2:30 pm and Thursday the 9th at 8:00pm.
Tickets are $17-$20 with $2 discount for seniors and students.