Not enough fireworks: (l-r) Nobel and Zeltner
in You Can’t Take It With You.
Can’t Take It With You
George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, directed by Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill
Capital Repertory Theatre, through Dec. 18
Classic comedies at their cores are about serious themes;
Shakespeare’s comedies almost always have someone under a
death sentence or similarly imperiled. The notion that comedies
are fluff and nonsense comes from people more at ease with
the theatrical equivalent of fast food—all that fat, salt
and sugar fill, but aren’t fulfilling. Classic comedies are
as sustaining as classic tragedies. The difference rests in
how society and individuals are treated. Tragedies affirm
society as being right, while comedies show the folly of society.
This helps to explain why comedies aren’t taught in high schools,
but tragedies are. Individuals are sublime in comedies, while
in tragedies society’s proprieties must be preserved by keeping
the sublime with the gods and death. George S. Kaufman and
Moss Hart’s 1936 classic comedy You Can’t Take It With
You shows the supremacy of individuals over the conformity
of society. It takes those two certainties of life—death and
taxes—and sticks them up society’s rear.
and Hart fill grandpa Martin Vanderhof’s (chocolate-voiced
Richard Mawe) “around the corner from Columbia University”
home with individuals: mother Penny Sycamore (the redoubtable
Eileen Schuyler) types her plays with titles like Sex Takes
a Holiday or the war drama Gas Attack while appropriately
surrounded by snakes and kitties; daughter Essie (the limber
Rachel Sullivan) stretches, creating balletic flutters of
movement while waiting for her Love Dream candies to cool
in the kitchen; the maid Rheba (vivaciously focused Iris M.
Farrugia) sets tables and checks on the progress of Penny’s
plays (“You’d think with 40 monks and one girl something would
happen”) with aplomb; Penny’s husband Paul (John Noble) and
random border Mr. DePinna (Ted Zeltner) make fireworks as
1936 performance art—they enthusiastically plan on depicting
the Russian Revolution in gunpowder—in the basement; Essie’s
husband Ed (Kris Anderson) plays the xylophone as Essie flutters;
and the regular visitors, Rheba’s almost live-in boyfriend
Donald (the funny and fast Shawn Williams) and Boris Kolenkov
(Terry Rabin), Essie’s ballet teacher. Even first-time visitors
Gay Wellington (the hysterical Nicola Sheara), a drunk actress
who comes to read one of Penny’s plays and stays to pass out
on any horizontal surface, and Grand Duchess Olga Katrina
(the even-more-hysterical Nicolevnya Shearonovsky), who comes
to dinner and stays to cook—bring their own brand of individualism
to a family pursuing happiness with the ardor of a herd of
cats purring contently over a saucer of cream.
Into this mix daughter Alice (a charming Meghan Doherty) brings
her boss’s son Tony Kirby (Tug Coker, who doesn’t imitate
Jimmy Stewart—the film version’s Tony—as much as he channels
Stewart’s wholesomeness and honesty) in a quest for normalcy.
When Tony’s indicted Wall Street father (Stephen Bradbury)
comes to dinner a day earlier than planned, the non sequiturs
fly fast and furious: G-men come to arrest Grandpa Martin
for not paying his taxes and Ed for printing up communist
threats; the fireworks in the basement explode (the one true
dud in the production); and Penny’s parlor game reveals Mr.
Kirby’s hollow core.
While director Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill is true to the disciplined
structure of this classic comedy, the comic spirit is constrained.
The cast get the laughs Kaufman and Hart wrote, but the manic
spirit and the joy of tweaking the nose of propriety—“A cat
can look at a king, can’t it?” Martin asks a disapproving
Alice when she attempts to inoculate Mr. Kirby from her family’s
lunacy—are missing. It is well-costumed, well- constructed,
well-blocked and well- spoken. This You Can’t Take It With
You is funny, but not hysterical; free, but not liberating;
interesting, but not moving. A play about the pursuit of happiness
and allowing the happenstance of good karma to overcome the
certainties of government bureaucracy, business machinations,
and the aforementioned death and taxes, is a play that demands
a little manic spirit.