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Some people live and let live. Not the eccentric Sycamores: the jovial family at the heart of the Kaufman & Hart 1936 play You Can’t Take it With You: now on Broadway at the Longacre Theatre. They let live, to be sure, but they themselves do not so much live as whirl, dance, paint, type, print, set off explosions, and a thousand and one other frenetic verbs. Sauntering through their over-stuffed West Village mansion (a taxonomy – and taxidermy – of the weird curated splendidly by designer David Rockwell), the Sycamores exist in a magnificent bubble, blithely oblivious to the outside world, earning little income and paying fewer taxes.
But every family has its black sheep. Among the Sycamores it’s the staid Alice (Anna Chlumsky, new to the role), whose love for her family is tempered by her acute embarrassment over how their mores must appear to her wealthy, traditionally-raised fiancée Tony Kirby (Dollhouse’s archnerd Fran Kranz: made over into a bona fide heartthrob).
The problem is: the Sycamores aren’t exactly that weird. Sure, mother Penelope (Kristine Neilsen) writes bad plays, and father Paul likes making fireworks go boom, and sister Essie (Masters of Sex’s Annaleigh Ashford) can’t stop pirouetting about the place, but all too often – whether a result of the script or the direction – the Sycamores seem curiously muted as a potential source of shame.
Some of that, to be sure, is down to the way the script has aged since Frank Capra first made it famous on film. It’s hard to listen uncritically to Grandpa Sycamore (James Earl Jone) as he talks of the importance of slowing down, of caring less about money and more about spending time with one’s family, when for so many, money and time are both in short supply. And a subplot involving a black maid, Rheba, and her boyfriend Donald – who happily collects welfare money on top of his cash salary – trades in uncomfortable tropes.
But some of the Sycamore clan’s lack of edge feels down to a relative lack of energy among the cast. Each Sycamore has his or her own strange hobby – be it dancing, writing, or snake-charming – but often the actors involve seem to be performing in simultaneous talent shows: displaying their own particular artistic foibles without evincing a clear Sycamore connection. Because the aristocratic Kirbies themselves are played so sympathetically – this production treats them as less blue-blooded than politely bewildered – it’s hard to mine their mismatch for comedy. The stakes never quite feel high enough.
When such connections do come about, however, You Can’t Take it With You is a triumph. The play’s major set-pieces – mostly involving the Kirby family visit to the Sycamore household – are splendid feats of synchronicity, as a hundred Chekhov’s guns (or was that fireworks?) go on at once. In those moments, we see precisely what makes the Sycamores a family, rather than a rag-tag collective of individuals.
Individual performances, though, can and do shine. As the matriarch of the Sycamore household, Kristine Neilsen exudes a combination of chaos and gravitas: dominating every scene she’s in with grace. James Earl Jones, as her father, is likewise commanding: playing Grandpa with perverse pride in his own eccentricity that prevents his words from ever feeling truly saccharine.
Stealing the show, however, are two visitors to the Sycamore household, who take screwball comedy and turn it up as many notches as necessary. Julie Halston, as a gin-soaked actress, and Reg Rogers, as a raging Russian, set the bar high for pratfalls and sight gags; when the Sycamores catch a little of their fire, the result is explosive.
All too often, however, the Sycamores don’t quite kindle the necessary flame. And, in its quieter moments, You Can’t Take It With You starts to feel less like a screwball comedy, and more like a typical meet-the-in-laws dinner.
Which, depending on your in-laws, might be even scarier.
Tara Isabella Burton
Tara Isabella Burton's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Arc, The Dr TJ Eckleburg Review, Guernica, and more. In 2012 she received the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing. She is represented by the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency of New York; her first novel is currently on submission.