In ample time for Thanksgiving, Jeffrey Richards and a slew of associates (“by special arrangement with the Roundabout Theatre Company”) has delivered to the Longacre Theatre on Broadway a true holiday feast. In three acts, with two intermissions and a company of over twenty actors, it makes the new 90 minute one acters look like tiny appetizers. This feast comes complete with the 1936 Pulitzer Prize play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, it has a super David Rockwell set which represents the street in front of, and the living room within, the old home of Martin Vanderhof and family, on the upper west side of Manhattan.
It’s quite a family which lives in free wheeling harmony under the one roof. Everyone has high energy from Grandpa to Granddaughter, mixed with a live-in working couple, and assorted strangers who came to visit and remained, some for many years.
Grandpa is long retired from a job in Wall Street, is a pensioner and spends quality time puttering and going to commencements at Columbia. His daughter Penelope Sycamore runs the house in between stints as an artist and a playwright. She’s not very talented, but she has loads of fun working at them. Her husband Paul happily creates gift items and fireworks in the basement with his buddy Mr. DePinna, who doesn’t appear to have a first name.Rheba the maid, and her boyfriend Donald do the cooking , and keep the house in reasonable working order. Daughter Essie and her very sweet husband Ed contribute a few dollars for maintenance via the sale of their home made candy and holiday goodies, which Ed sells door to door in the neighborhood.
What fuels them, though, is their passion for their “art” — Essie is mad for Pavlova and is devoted to the ballet, taking daily lessons from a displaced Russian who seems to appear every evening around dinner time. Ed keeps his xylophone in the upstairs foyer so that he can poke at it whenever he becomes inspired, which is often. Young granddaughter Alice is the one reasonably conventional resident, and most of her salary goes to keeping the family clothed and fed.
It is she who introduces a young man to the family as the play begins. He is Anthony Kirby, her boss downtown, and the scion to a fortune by his father, who is the head of the Wall Street firm for which they both work. Of course all sorts of others drop in; an actress Penny meets on the subway, a Grand Duchess who was cousin to the late Czar Nicholas, some men from the Internal Revenue Service who are curious about Grandpa’s income tax history, a few Federal marshals who suspect dirty doin’s are goin’ on, as Ed loves to print and his latest collection of samplers, which he’s been spreading around the neighborhood in the candy boxes he peddles, is from the works of Leon Trotsky, the Russian Marxist revolutionary. He hasn’t a clue what they mean; he just likes the way they look.
To play these assorted eccentrics is a cast made in heaven. Clearly everyone wanted to be part of this return to simpler times, so the lineup for the curtain calls is impressive indeed.
Center Stage is James Earl Jones as Grandpa. At 83, he is giving one of the most delightful performances of his long career, delivered deftly and with a light touch which allows him to make music of his magnificent voice. But he’s using not only his voice, but all of him to get laughs throughout, and to give the play weight whenever he dives into one of his more substantial monologues.
As his daughter Penelope Sycamore, Kristine Nielsen comes down a notch or two from her more affluenced family member in last season’s Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike to bring her own magical comedy rhythms to match those used 80 years ago by Spring Byington, whose own film performance in this role earned her an Oscar nomination in 1938. Mark Linn-Baker, as her addled husband Paul Sycamore, is grounded but dotty as well.
Rose Byrne has taken the more conventional role of Alice and injected it with sugar and spice and everything nice to make her most unconventional, and her boy friend Tony, as played by Fran Kranz, is not your typical vacuous juvenile but rather a passionate youth who realizes Alice can help him release the individual in himself, so his pursuit of her takes on urgency. His parents are beautifully brought to life by Byron Jennings and Johanna Day; they contribute mightily to the hilarious “game playing” scene Penny introduces in an effort to calm everyone down when the Curtis family comes to dinner — no spoiler here — suffice it to say everyone does need calming down when they show up.
Annaleigh Ashford is a laugh riot as Essie, the budding ballerina. Wearing toe shoes as though she was born in them, she spins her way through the role, adding comic meat to its bones with mime that never quits. Her contribution to the game playing scene, though silent, is masterful and hilarious. Will Brill as her candy making husband Ed, another masterful mime, attempts Beethoven on his xylophone, and his Mrs. creates a minor masterwork to it choreographically, which Ms. Ashford executes in a way that would make Diaghalev spin in his grave.
Elizabeth Ashley must indeed start a new paragraph, for as the Grand Duchess Olga she doesn’t arrive until deep in the third act, and for a few minutes thereafter the play is all hers. This grand lady, once Robert Redford’s innocent bride in Barefoot in the Park, knows how to make an entrance, how to take the stage, and how to get a well deserved laugh by merely moving her eyeballs. Another late comer, with only a moment or two into which to sink her comic chops, is Julie Halston, often seen as Charles Busch’s sidekick, this time playing an actress whom Penny discovers on a subway. Her visit to the Vanderhof-Sycamore home brings more mirth.
So there you have it. Scott Ellis deserves much credit for orchestrating the whole thing, for keeping these gifted actors from bumping into each other, and more importantly for keeping the energy up but the overplaying down. However, on that subject, I don’t like to quibble but Jason Robert Brown’s pleasant incidental score is played at full blast, thus changing it from mood enhancing between scenes to interruptions which merely intrude. Jon Weston’s sound design is fine all through the play, but someone forgot to monitor the decibel levels between scenes. This is easily fixed; just turn them down.
You Can’t Take It With You is onstage through January 4, 2015 at the Longacre Theatre, Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th Street, NYC.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.