The 1937 Pulitzer Prize-winning play You Can't Take It With You, now on stage at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka, is a madcap comedy about an eccentric extended American family.
A few columns ago I quoted an interview I did with Jason Robards Jr. backstage on Broadway. The play he was doing was the 1983 revival of You Can't Take It With You. I later spent a pleasant hour with other members of the cast, including the great character actors Elizabeth Wilson and Bill McCutcheon. Every version of this play depends on a talented ensemble working together, even with a star like Robards. That's no less true of the North Coast Rep production.
At NCRT, David Simms as grandfather Martin Vanderhof serves as the calm eye of this modest hurricane, but everybody provides comic moments while grounding this group in earnest eccentricity: Ken Klima as the fireworks-making father, Lora Canzoneri as the amateur playwright mother, Sarah Traywick as the dancing daughter and Jon Edwards as her xylophone-playing husband. Characters played by Arnold Waddell, Taylen Winters and Saul Tellez round out the household.
The love story that drives the conflict involves the rich boy (Evan Needham) whose parents (Sam Clauder and Shullie Steinfeld) don't approve of the poor girl (Molly Harvis as Martin's granddaughter) and especially her unconventional family. Anders Carlson as the Russian dance teacher jolts the energy into another gear whenever he appears, and small but essential moments are played by Jacqui Cain, Robert Garner and Tony Martinez.
On opening night the clarity of both Mack Owen's direction and the performances proved that the play itself is a solid wonder, an unlikely delight transcending its time. As the production continues it can become even crisper, and actors will find new comic moments. There's also opportunity for better use of sound to increase the comedy.
The craziness on stage is at least matched by the bizarre process of how the play was written. George S. Kaufman was one of the most successful Broadway playwrights in history, and the younger Moss Hart was not far behind. They had collaborated on two successful plays when they carved out time in their busy Broadway and Hollywood careers to work on a project that they soon realized wasn't going to work. Hart, known for his emotional highs and lows, was in despair. Kaufman, who famed critic Brooks Atkinson called "the gloomy dean of Broadway wits," remembered a Hart idea from two years before, about a mad but loveable family.
They talked it out with mounting excitement, and Kaufman contacted his producer to book a theatre and hire a specific list of actors — all before the play was written. Then Kaufman and Hart wrote frantically, with the particular talents of these actors to guide them.
They drew from everything around them. Hart recalled a word association game he'd played with Richard Rodgers and Barbara Stanwyck, and used it in the play to reveal character. Kaufman got a pretentious invitation from a former Russian nobleman now in the fur business, and this inspired the Russian émigrés who are so essential to the story. (The exile of a Russian grand duchess pretty happily working as a New York waitress is a neat variation on the theme of a family nobly falling into humble fates that fulfill them.)
Kaufman had just done a large ensemble comedy (Stage Door), and the movie he'd been writing may have influenced this play's zany moments — it was the Marx Brothers' Night at the Opera. Meanwhile, he was literally hiding out to escape a court subpoena in a Hollywood sex scandal, so he placed two of his characters in legal jeopardy.
Kaufman emerged to direct the play with a title he and Hart didn't like: You Can't Take It With You. Hart was near hysteria, certain the play would fail. It was an immediate and enduring hit, and the most honored of the Kaufman and Hart collaborations. The play tells a very American tale, so perhaps it isn't surprising that the Oscar-nominated film version got the Frank Capra treatment. The play is better.
North Coast Rep honors the play's three-act form (with two intermissions), standard for the 1930s though a novelty these days. But it works really well in three acts and does not seem long. The conflict of valuing the pursuit of money over living other dreams also furnished the theme of such plays as Philip Barry's Holiday (most famous as the 1938 Cary Grant/Katherine Hepburn movie) and Herb Gardner's A Thousand Clowns (with Jason Robards, who also starred in the 1965 film). But it's interesting that I can't think of recent examples.
Calder Johnson is scenic and lighting director, Jenneveve Hood did the subtly striking costumes, and Michael Thomas did the sound. You Can't Take It With You plays weekends at NCRT through Oct. 12.
Thorton Wilder's classic Our Town is scheduled to open at Ferndale Repertory Theatre on Oct. 10. The Mel Brooks' musical Young Frankenstein is set to open at HSU on Oct. 17.