Thursday, September 04, 2014

You Can't Take It With You

photo: Joan Marcus

The new Broadway revival of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s You Can’t Take It With You is spectacularly bad. This, perhaps, shouldn’t be surprising. New York theatre no longer specializes in top-drawer revivals of the classic comedies of the twenties, thirties, and forties. Once in an ever-growing while, you’ll get a production like Doug Hughes’ The Royal Family, done for Manhattan Theatre Club in 2009, where a talented cast creates the kind of magic that makes you feel like the golden age never ended. More often, though, you end up with subpar stagings that might even make you question the integrity of the original work: the Kim Cattrall Private Lives; the Victor Garber Present Laughter; Roundabout’s ghastly Old Acquaintance. There are even more such productions of which I don’t care to be reminded.
This new take on the Pulitzer-winning classic, staged by Scott Ellis in a Roundabout co-production, seemed so promising. On paper, the cast is divine. The set takes your breath away as soon as the house lights dim. The incidental music by three-time Tony winner Jason Robert Brown had my toes tapping. Yet as soon as the gums started flapping, I knew something was terribly wrong.

The first act opens in 1936 and introduces the Vanderhof-Sycamore family. Grandpa (James Earl Jones) quit his job in 1901 and has spent the years since handling snakes and attending commencement exercises; he also proudly proclaims that he’s never paid income tax. His daughter Penny (Kristine Nielson) writes plays and dabbles in painting. Her husband, Paul Sycamore (Mark Linn-Baker), tries to perfect fireworks in the basement. They have two daughters: the eccentric Essie (Annaleigh Ashford), who makes candy and studies dance under Russian exile Boris Kolenkhov (the lively Reg Rogers, and the straight-laced Alice (Rose Byrne, in her Broadway debut), who’s content to work as a secretary for the Wall Street firm of Kirby and Co.
Alice is in love with Tony Kirby (Fran Kranz), the boss’s son, and the feeling is mutual. Their marriage, though, is contingent upon a meeting of the families. Mr. & Mrs. Kirby (Byron Jennings and Johanna Day) are as conservative as the Sycamores are creative. They come to dinner in the middle of a particularly crazy day. Hilarity is meant to ensue—and perhaps, in the right production, it would.

If there is one area in which this staging excels, it’s in the sparkling supporting turns. The invaluable Julie Halston turns relatively brief stage time into the most memorable performance of the evening as Gay Wellington, a mediocre actress and world-class lush. She swings by the house to read Penny’s last play and promptly passes out. Crystal Dickinson shines as Rheba, the family maid. Will Brill does well as Ed Carmichael, Essie’s print-obsessed husband, and Patrick Kerr makes the most of his role as Paul Sycamore’s assistant, Mr. DePinna.

Elizabeth Ashley is somewhat luxuriously cast at the Grand Duchess Olga Katrina, a Russian dignitary reduced to waitressing at Child’s, but the less said about her, the better.
James Earl Jones does here what James Earl Jones seems to do whenever he’s on stage these days. He shows up. He flashes that hundred-watt smile. He says his lines in those mellifluous tones. The audience goes crazy. It scarcely seemed to matter that he still seemed tentative in his line readings, or that the role of Grandpa itself is hardly a comfortable fit.

I thought Kristine Nielsen would make a wonderful Penny, but she was trying too hard with material that doesn’t need it. Byrne and Kranz both came off as too modern for the young lovers, and Mark Linn-Baker left no impression whatsoever. Ashford is adept at physical comedy, but her line readings often baffled. She’s using the same odd vocal inflections that she employed in Kinky Boots, an affected American accent rather than an affected British one being the only difference.

I’ve started to think that this kind of old-fashioned play is damn-near impossible to do well in New York these days, at least on Broadway. Somebody please prove me wrong.
[Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, with two 10-minute intermissions. Rear balcony seats, $32.]




Wendy Caster said...

Just curious--how did the audience react?

Cameron Kelsall said...

It was pretty quiet during Act One, but they seemed more engaged in Acts Two and Three.