I know I read You Can't Take it With You back in college, and I must offer my apologies to my fantastic professor, Gary Gardner, because I did not remember anything about this play until seeing the current production by Different Stages. This production of the classic American comedy by George Kaufman and Moss Hart sparkles with charm, wit, and humor and is sure to be a highlight of Austin theatre's holiday season.
The 1930s comedy centers around the quirky, madcap Sycamore family. They are as unconventional as unconventional can get. Patriarch Grandpa Vanderhoff hasn't paid his income tax ever, keeps snakes as a hobby, and has quit his prosperous job. His daughter, Penny Sycamore, writes tawdry sex-filled melodramas. Her husband, Paul, makes fireworks in the basement with his friend, Mr. De Pinna. The Sycamore's daughter, Essie Sycamore Carmichael, makes candy and dreams of being a ballerina, and her husband, Ed, is an amateur printer. Indeed, they all have their quirks and hobbies, all that is except for the other Sycamore daughter, Alice, who works in an office and has fallen for the boss's son, Tony. While Tony accepts and enjoys the Sycamore clan, Alice is a bit apprehensive about joining their two families. Hilarity ensues when Tony's Park Avenue parents meet the Sycamores.
Yes, it is a bit sophomoric, sitcom-esque, and has been re-done in such movies as Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and The Birdcage, but it's done so well here that you just won't care that you've seen this plot before. Part of the success comes from Mick D'Arcy's splendid direction. He transforms the intimate Vortex Stage into the Sycamore's cluttered and eclectic dining room and allows his actors to use every inch of the space, including the aisles. His pacing is also perfect. While it may be a three act play, this production flies by, as does the witty dialogue. D'Arcy's design team also adds to the evening, particularly Kara Cordell's 1930s costumes (the dresses worn by Penny and Alice are wonderful), Ann Marie Gordon's stunning set design, and Patrick Anthony's splendid lighting.
But it is the cast here that is truly memorable. This is a company of Austin's finest actors. All are absolutely fantastic. Phoebe Greene is endearing as the matriarch, Penny. Katie O'Brien is cute and sweet as Essie. Scot Friedman plays Paul Sycamore with a spryness and almost childlike glee, fitting for someone who delights in making things blow up. Norman Blumensaadt is delightful as Grandpa Vanderhof, and Tony Salinas proves to be a strong leading man with the role of Tony Kirby. However, the true stand out is Chelsea Bunn as Alice. Playing the "normal" one of the Sycamore brood is a difficult task as her objections to their actions and behavior can quickly make her unlikeable. Bunn manages, though, to make it clear that Alice is indeed a Sycamore and loves and cherishes her family. She's never ashamed of them and never wants them to change which makes the conflict all the more interesting.
Though the story may be simple and the plot has been done over and over again, You Can't Take it With You is a must see. This is by far one of the strongest family/ensemble comedies I have seen in years. Different Stages has a crowd-pleaser on its hands.
Run time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, including two 10 minute intermissions.
YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU, produced by Different Stages, plays The Vortex Theatre at 2307 Manor Road now thru December 8th. Performances are Thursdays thru Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm. No performance on Thursday, November 22nd. Added performance on Wednesday, December 5th. Tickets are $15-$30. For tickets and information, visit www.main.org/diffstages.
Pictured: Phoebe Green and Norman Blumensaadt in You Can't Take it With You. Photo by Bret Brookshire.