Players revisit the classic "You Can't Take it With You" in hammy, ditzy style
Wacky families are a dramatic staple. From the ancient Greeks to "Arrested Development," eccentric relatives have proved theatrical gold for millennia. The latest offering by Palo Alto Players is a new production of an American classic.
"You Can't Take it With You," the 1936 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, focuses on the blithely goofy Sycamore/Vanderhof clan, a bohemian family in Depression-era New York. Grandpa (Tom Caldecott) is an income-tax shirker who quit the business world around the turn of the century and spends his time collecting snakes and attending commencements. Mother Penny (Debi Durst) took up playwriting on a whim eight years ago, when a typewriter was delivered by mistake. The typewriter deliveryman, Mr. De Pinna (Ronald Feichtmeir), ended up staying ever since, assisting father Paul (John Watson) in making illegal fireworks.
Meanwhile, daughter Essie (Kim Saunders) makes sweet candy confections called "love dreams" while training, for nearly a decade, in a going-nowhere attempt at a ballet career. Her sweet-but-dimwitted husband Ed (Keith Sullivan) prints anything he comes across and plays xylophone to accompany his wife's en pointe experiments. Housekeeper-of-dubious-skill Reba (Rene M. Banks) and her cheerfully unemployed boyfriend Donald (Max Williams), plus Russian exile and ballet tutor Kolenkhov (Brandon Silberstein) serve as adopted family members as well. Daughter Alice (Lorie Goulart), apparently the most "normal" Sycamore, has a job on Wall Street and finds herself in love with the company's young vice president — and son of the boss — Tony Kirby (Adam Cotugno).
Alice is sure their engagement is doomed, however, due to the differences between her happy-go-lucky folks and Tony's uptight, wealthy parents (Ron Talbot and Beverley Griffith). She tries to hide her family's quirks but, as you might expect, the inevitable meeting does not go swimmingly. In fact, it ends with a literal bang. Will young love triumph over this clash of family values? Hint: It's a screwball comedy, not "Romeo and Juliet."
The set design by Patrick Klein is wonderful. The entire three acts take place within the confines of the family living room. Luckily Klein has provided delightful eye candy in the form of colorful portraits and other paintings hung several columns high, objets d'art and fun gizmos and toys including skulls and musical instruments, plus a cozy hodgepodge of furniture. It's exactly the kind of home in which I can happily spend hours soaking up the atmosphere. I also adored the costumes by Mary Cravens, whose period clothing nicely reflects the personalities of the various characters in color, style and fabric. The pre-show and intermission music coming from the direction of the old radio are nice touches, although a few tunes seem anachronistic.
"You Can't Take It With You" is the kind of play that invites hammy acting, and the actors in this production more or less comply. On opening night, everyone's delivery was stilted at times, and Goulart affected a singsong voice for her Alice, who should be the most relatable one but ended up seeming a spoiled brat. On the whole, though, the offbeat characters and the actors playing them come across as likeable and charming — except perhaps Essie and Ed, who come off as unrealistically ditzy at times.
Though the Players' press release promised over-the-top hilarity, the show is more goofily pleasurable than laugh-out-loud. The conflict between the kooky Sycamores and staid Kirbys is funny but not uproarious, as both sides appear to the modern viewer as nice, and not all that outrageous. This makes Alice's anxiety feel overblown (though, granted, explosions and jail time are involved, so she might have been right to worry after all).
Perhaps back in 1936 the juxtaposition of two such families was more scandalous. Certainly the meeting between prospective in-laws has always been and will always be nerve-wracking, no matter the parties involved.
It's hard to argue with the optimistic, if cliched, lesson Grandpa offers the workaholic Mr. Kirby, that the pursuit of happiness is infinitely more worthwhile than the pursuit of money. However, coming from a family in which no one needs to work, is supported by property income and tax-dodging and that can even afford a servant, the smug message may rub some the wrong way. But when the family and friends crowd round their table to say grace with humble thankfulness, the sentiment is genuinely lovely and uplifting.
Faults aside, "You Can't Take It With You" has remained popular for decades (and as an Oscar-winning film) because of its warm heart, gentle comedy and positive outlook. Palo Alto Players' production is no exception.
What: "You Can't Take It With You," a comedy presented by Palo Alto Players
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Through Nov. 18, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m.
Cost: Tickets are $29, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups.
Info: Go to paplayers.org or call 650-329-0891.