Theater Review: James Earl Jones Helps Keep You Can’t Take It With You Funny

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Photo: Joan Marcus

Most contemporary stage comedies are aggressively joke-based. In effect, the playwright demands that theatergoers bend to the rhythm of his punch lines and cough up laughs on cue. It can be a satisfying if rarely a surprising experience, like watching sitcoms in public. In any case such comedies have all but snuffed out the older, milder kind that flourished on Broadway in the first half of the last century with a minimum of mandatory yocks; few written before 1960 seem revivable, at least to commercial producers. It is therefore not just a treat but also a lesson in humor to find a 76-year-old play like You Can’t Take It With You still springing off the page and tearing through an audience. It may be a chestnut, but when staged and cast as smartly as this Broadway revival, a chestnut goes down like marron glacé. 

There’s no avoiding its old-fashionedness; You Can’t Take It With You has a principal cast of 15, three acts, and a taste for whimsy over realism. Its idea of an au courant namedrop is Trotsky. But in this, the third of the eight 1930s collaborations between George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, the dramatic architecture feels more purpose-built than those once-modish elements might suggest. The whimsy is tactical. The period is crucial. And the play’s argument requires its big structure. That argument, as the title indicates, is about the uses of money: a topic no less worthy of consideration in 1938, when the country was leaping from depression toward war, than it is today, when it is doing something similar.

But before the play argues, it beckons. The scene is the cozy Washington Heights home of Martin Vanderhof (James Earl Jones), under whose roof lives an extended clan of charming eccentrics. These include his daughter, Penelope (Kristine Nielsen); her husband, Paul (Mark Linn-Baker); their daughters, Essie (Annaleigh Ashford) and Alice (Rose Byrne); Essie’s husband, Ed (Will Brill); and various quasi-employees and hangers-on. All but Alice, the practical one, have followed Martin’s example of what we would now call following one’s bliss; none has a proper job or the onerous responsibilities that go with it. This does not mean they are good at their bliss; Penelope, formerly a bad painter, is now a bad playwright; Paul makes fireworks that explode inopportunely; Essie dances like she’s having a seizure while Ed accompanies her with deathless melodies banged out on a xylophone. Martin himself, generally called Grandpa, conjures a happy life from a grab bag of hobbies: He tends his pet snakes, crashes commencement ceremonies, and refuses to acknowledge the Internal Revenue Service.

And so the stage is set for literal fireworks when Alice, a secretary to a Wall Street baron, brings into this hive of capitalism refuseniks the boss’s son, whom she hopes to marry. Act One introduces the dilemma; Act Two explodes it with a riotous get-to-know-the-in-laws dinner, and Act Three sweetly resolves it. Along the way, various subplots (Grandpa vs. the IRS; the arrival of a drunk actress and a deposed czarist duchess) are tied up in ways that might seem too neat and too neatly related for contemporary sensibilities. And they would be, too, if treated in a contemporary manner. But the director, Scott Ellis, who also handled the 2004 revival of the hoary Twelve Angry Men with aplomb, does not make the fatal mistake of condescending to the material or trying to bring to it expressive values it was not designed to bear. Essie the ballerina is not now a pole-dancer. Her flamboyant Russian instructor Kolenkhov is not a pedophile. No flesh is bared except for that of Mr. DePinna, a former iceman who made a delivery eight years ago and never left. (He models for Penelope in a Roman toga.) David Rockwell’s spectacularly warm set, every surface encrusted with bric-a-brac, rotates but does not lift off, revealing ghosts. The pacing is fleet, not portentous.

But as important as a knowledge of the pitfalls to be avoided is the love of the opportunities this kind of material offers. Chief among these is the chance to make the most of actors whose demonstrative style can, in other genres, seem over-the-top. A first-rate clown like Nielsen can put her familiar tools — the bobblehead gyrations, the sudden baritone — to excellent use, never allowing her mugging, which is necessary to the tone, to get explanatory. We do not need to know why she is eccentric, only to feel comfortable enjoying the eccentricity. Wonderfully and typically for the period, if not our own, the play does not provide the necessary psychology but assumes the actors will provide it — and keep it to themselves. What the text requires them to show is only the result, which they manage beautifully almost top to bottom. Jones, at 83, is so skilled at this he hardly needs to do anything; he makes no attempt to justify Martin’s oddness any more than his goodness. (His saying grace thus becomes an unexpectedly moving counterpoint to the evening’s shenanigans.) When Ashford’s Essie stares terrifyingly into the middle-distance as part of her terpsichorean shtick, her maniacal seriousness is enough to make it hilarious. Johanna Day, as the fiancé’s shell-shocked mother, is like an overfull pitcher of gin-and-tonic, maintaining equilibrium only through delirious internal but barely indicated effort. Will Brill as the xylophone-playing Ed is a giddy Simpsons character come to life. And even Rose Byrne, making her New York stage debut as the “normal” child, manages to find in the character’s very conventionality the nuttiness that binds her to this clan of weirdos. We understand from a sudden spasm or strangled sob that rejecting her family, even for love and millions, would be rejecting herself.

If the performances benefit from a strong period style, some of the play’s contemporary assumptions are not so comfortably revived. You Can’t Take It With You was probably ahead of its time racially in 1938: the family’s maid, Rheba, and her “boyfriend,” Donald — a grown man — are not especially condescended to. They eat with the family and actually function like normal people. Still, even with some judicious cutting (the line “They’re awfully sweet, sort of like Porgy and Bess” has been truncated), the characterizations occasionally get queasy:

KOLENKHOV: What do you think of this Government? 
DONALD: Oh, I like it fine. I'm on relief, you know. 
KOLENKHOV: Oh, yes. And you like it?
DONALD: Yassuh, it's fine. Only thing is you got to go round to the place every week to get it, and sometimes you got to stand in line pretty near half an hour.

Having a black paterfamilias in Jones goes part way toward warranting the production’s racial bona fides; having made that leap into colorblindness, though, couldn’t it have made another? Perhaps next revival. Meanwhile, this one’s a keeper.

You Can’t Take It With You is at the Longacre Theatre.