NEW YORK – The resounding success of a new production of the 1936 play “You Can’t Take It With You” by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart seems to attest that it is the playwrights’ most popular comedy. The original production won a Pulitzer Prize, and in 1938, Frank Capra’s movie adaptation won a Best Picture Academy Award. There have been Broadway revivals – six – over the years and now it’s filling the Longacre Theater on West 48th Street with 21st-century laughter.
Kaufman and Hart’s shows, such as “The Man Who Came to Dinner” and “Once In a Lifetime,” have always been popular, but none has been like “You Can’t Take It With You.” The appealing madcap fun of the free-thinking Sycamore family’s irresponsible lifestyle still touches audiences’ souls and funny bones, and the characters’ humanity hasn’t paled over the 78 years since the show’s debut.
Kaufman and Hart rarely wrote serious plays; mostly, they were frivolous, designed for the enjoyment and entertainment of the audience. They also were big box- office hits. With its success over the years, “You Can’t Take It With You” emerges as a comedy for the ages. It may be more solid, even more significant than it seemed when it opened those many years ago. It may also be that Kaufman and Hart shows reflect more honestly and accurately the spirit of the age in which they were written than some of the more pretentious dramas of the time.
Under their happy exteriors, the plays are not profound. They are very much in the tempo of their times, which like today were turbulent and confused and funny.
Kaufman and Hart’s plays were never sophisticated. On the contrary, they seem utterly innocent and cheerful. Crazy, yes. The surface was slick, full of wisecracks and curt, clipped comments about men’s and women’s travails. Every member of the Sycamore family does precisely what he or she wants to do with no questions asked. The family is presided over by Martin Vanderhof (James Earl Jones), father of Penelope Sycamore (Kristine Nielsen); 25 years ago, he gave up the drudgery of working. Now he attends Columbia University convocations, is a dart board aficionado and raises snakes in the family’s circa-’30s, bric-a-brac-filled living room, designed by David Rockwell, with the cast all in appropriate period costumes by Jane Greenwood.
Penelope is a playwright by accident after a typewriter was sent to their home by mistake. Her husband Paul (Mark Linn-Baker) makes fireworks in the basement, and elder daughter Essie (Annaleigh Ashford) is trying to be a ballet dancer, though her Russian instructor, Boris Kolenkhon (Reg Rogers), doesn’t think she has any talent.
The one sane member of the household is younger daughter Alice, played by Rose Byrne of TV’s “Damages,” and making an impressive first Broadway appearance. She is a secretary and wants to marry her boss’s son, Tony Kirby (Fran Kranz). Unfortunately, he invites his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Kirby (Byron Jennings and Johanna Day), to dinner at the Sycamores’ house on the wrong night and they get quite a view of the madhouse.
The F.B.I. arrives because gunpowder has been found in the basement and they all (including the Kirbys) get sent to jail for a night. Elizabeth Ashley comes delightfully late into the proceedings as Olga, a Russian princess who works at Child’s Restaurant and makes blintzes for the brood. Grandpa sums it all up: “Life is simple and kind of beautiful if you let it come to you.” Scott Ellis directs the crazy proceedings with a smart and fast accomplished hand.
Back in 1936, some critics felt that Kaufman and Hart tinkered and tampered with their plays. Well, those detractors have been proven wrong. “You Can’t Take It With You” demonstrates that Kaufman and Hart were practical showmen, shrewd and wise spokesmen of the human race. They made their own generation laugh by showing them their own follies and by doing it with an uncommon kind of theatrical expertise. This new production is now making another generation laugh with as much delight.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.