Wednesday, October 15, 2014

You Can't Take It With You

Sara Krulwich
You Can't Take It With You, currently running in star-studded revival at the Longacre, has been reviewed twice already on this blog. Wendy really enjoyed it (you can read her review here); Cameron really didn't (you can read his review here). I'd place my take on the production somewhere in-between theirs, though maybe a little closer to the Wendy side of things (sorry, Cameron): I enjoyed myself, in large part because I found the current Broadway production to be lively and well-performed and quite funny. But also, I dug the nostalgia trip: I played Penelope Sycamore in the Central Catholic High School of Pittsburgh's 1983 fall production, and seeing the show (with a friend who played Alice in a Denver high school production a few years later) brought back fond, if surprisingly fleeting, memories. Was the revival the best thing I've ever seen on Broadway, or even at the Longacre? No. Was it the worst? No. Did it seem like the all-star cast was having as much fun as I remember having when I was in the play? You betcha.

You'll likely have lots of fun, too, if you go to see it. Then again, the world probably won't end if you don't, and You Can't Take It With You is all about doing what you feel like doing, so you can decide and I won't judge you either way. That's about all I have to say about this particular production. I'd rather talk here, instead, about You Can't Take It With You from a more socio-historical perspective. Again, honest, I won't judge you if you stop reading right now.

But if you haven't, welcome to paragraph three. As I was saying, You Can't Take It With You occupies a strange, six-degrees-of-separation place in the American theater canon, in that just about everyone who grew up in this country has either been in the show, or worked on it, or seen some regional or amateur or semi-professional production of it. It's one of those shows that has lingered in the American consciousness less, I think, because it is a particularly brilliant or timeless play than because it is a big, straightforward domestic comedy that has lots of characters and one set and is thus easy and cheap to stage. By anyone. Anywhere. Often. It doesn't hurt that the play is also sweet and good-humored and G-rated (ok, maybe PG, but I seriously can't imagine anyone being shocked by the occasional oblique reminder that people did sometimes have sex in the 1930s).

You Can't Take It With You, which premiered on Broadway in 1936, is amply peppered with references to the Russian Revolution, Grover Cleveland, and the Spanish-American War. A brief debate about whether Ginger Rogers is, in fact, a good dancer is about as contemporary as its pop-cultural references get. I am sure that a lot of the dialogue was a real scream in the mid-1930s, when it was all at least sort of topical. But the fact that so many of the references are now ancient history is not what makes the show itself feel quite so dated. Rather, the overarching philosophy and take on idiosyncrasy seem, at least to me, the most hackneyed aspects of the play.

Maybe I'm wrong. But stick with me, at least through the plot synopsis: An unconventional, multi-generational family lives together in a big old cluttered house on Claremont Avenue in upper Manhattan. They all do whatever they want, whenever they want, never worrying if they're any good at it, or whether the neighbors will talk. They never seem to want for money, despite the fact that only one of them--the "normal" daughter, Alice--is truly gainfully employed (I'm not counting their servants, Rheba and Donald here, but they seem just as happy as the family is, and Donald is on relief, so maybe they do all the maid- and handyman work for free?). Alice falls for the very conventional boss's son at her very conventional office job, and despite misgivings, brings him and his very conventional family home to meet hers. Wackiness ensues. Alice attempts to break off the engagement because she is convinced her family and his will never get along, but her family wins his over with their cheery disregard for cultural strictures and their blithe mistrust of the government. Everyone lives happily--and, presumably, unconventionally--ever after. Sweet and charming, if hardly terribly deep.

But here's the thing: At least when it premiered, You Can't Take It With You was clearly perceived as meaningful enough that it won the freaking Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The original production ran on Broadway for 838 performances (which was successful by today's standards, and extraordinarily, monumentally, ridiculously successful by Depression standards). When Frank Capra made the movie version the following year, it received Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Picture. Say what you want about how meaningless any of these caveats are, but come on: a play about a family of average (white) Americans living happily off the radar (they pay no taxes), without having to work or worry about...well, about anything, DURING THE DEPRESSION, clearly resonated with (white) middle-class audiences in a very big way.

You Can't Take It With You remains a very sweet play, and the fact that there have been so very, very many entertainments reiterating its "live-life-to-the-fullest, seize-the-day, you-only-live-once, don't-be-so-conventional" messages in the 70-plus years since its premiere is not its fault. It is also not the play's fault that over the course of almost a full century, American cultural perceptions of idiosyncratic behavior have changed, at least a little. What struck me as perhaps the most outdated aspect of You Can't Take It With You is its take on its characters, who, by today's standards, really just aren't all that weird. Alice is anxious to introduce her future in-laws to her bohemian, bad play-writing mom and her fire-cracker obsessed dad? She's freaked that they might learn that Grandpa keeps some snakes as pets and likes to watch commencement exercises at Columbia in the spring? She is bugged that her beau might discover that her family likes to eat corn flakes for dinner? What the hell is her damage? Seriously, what strikes me as far weirder than any of the Sycamores are the future in-laws, who are more cartoonishly uptight than the Sycamores are cartoonishly strange.

Perhaps the middle class has, over the past decades, managed to merge a lot of what was once more dichotomous. Sure, people still work too hard, worry over money, and lament their lack of free time. But I know people who put in 70 hours a week and nevertheless manage to make it to roller-derby classes, or make their own cheese, or jam with friends, or brew their own beer, or throw a couple of pots. I would never break off a romance or a friendship upon learning that someone I dug ate cereal for dinner. I think, then, that the tables have turned, at least slightly, on the families in You Can't Take It With You: The Sycamore clan is, by today's standards, just not wacky enough, and the Kirbys are uptight, humorless assholes. Absent the real sense of extreme weirdness, there's just not that much to the play.

Nevertheless, You Can't Take It With You lives on. It may not be quite as relevant any more, but it remains awfully gentle, sweet, and dear to many of us. I was happy to visit with it again, even though I found flaws where I did. Nothing gold can stay, and all that. Penelope Sycamore may not be as delightfully bizarre as I remember her, but I thrilled upon seeing her nibble snacks from the skull-shaped candy dish on her desk. I don't know what you used for snacks in your production, but we had a whole stash of chocolate sno-caps in our skull. I guess sno-caps aren't all that offbeat in the end--but they're pretty satisfying nonetheless.  

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