Living in a townhouse on the upper west side of NYC is a wacky but lovable family guided by the idea that life is to be enjoyed and gaining money shouldn’t be a focus because, after all, you can’t take it with you: everyone should freely do their own thing — and so they do, with very funny results.
Grandpa Martin Vanderhof attends commencements, his daughter Penny writes plays about monasteries and sex slaves while her husband Paul and friend build fireworks in the basement, as granddaughter Essie earnestly practices ballet and so it goes, with other emphatic personalities who find themselves part of the household.
When granddaughter Alice, a working girl, is ardently courted by Tony, the son of her Wall Street millionaire boss, having a zany family becomes a problem — at least that’s how Alice sees it. She loves Tony, he loves her, but she’s sure the differences between his upper crust family and her own batch of eccentrics makes their marriage impossible: he ardently disagrees but the catastrophic collisions and explosions (literally) when his fancy mother and father come to dinner — on the wrong night — don’t make their union any easier. Still, comedies end in marriage and this is decidedly a comedy so — go figure.
One of my friends said of this production of You Can’t Take It With You, “Seemed awfully forced and pretty dated. Silly maybe.” Another said, “I thought it was dated and silly too. But I enjoyed it anyway. Thought it was fun.” I’m with the second. It’s a lot of fun — laughter is so good, and there’s such a lot of it, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world!
But yet, why this sense of “silly?”
The reason is that the main conflict is under-motivated: Alice’s certainty that the differences between their families makes their marriage impossible is not fully credible, from the start it doesn’t make sense but seems invented to keep the play going: conflict’s weakness can give rise to that word “silly,” for the otherwise beautifully conceived, written and performed comedy,
Evidently the film director Robert Capra also thought the central conflict needed strengthening, as I found when I looked more deeply into the play’s history. The play was first produced on Broadway in 1936, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937, and ran for 838 performances. Still, when Capra made the movie in 1938, he substantially raised the stakes.
Capra made Mr. Kirby, instead of just a Wall Street millionaire, a munitions manufacturer with a big government contract who intends to buy the Vanderhof’s decrepit house out from under him, as part of his plan to vanquish his business competitor. So, in the film, it’s not just an overblown romantic conflict: the house itself is threatened by the business designs of Tony’s father, and with it the very way of life of our lovable, independent-minded Vanderhof family.
I’m waiting to see the movie which I’ve ordered but I’d bet it won’t seem “silly”. Capra’s film won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director. (I’ll report back here on the film with a P.S.)
But there’s nothing like seeing the play with live actors and this production — wishy-washy conflict or not — is a delight. James Earl Jones seemed not to work very hard but he’s such a great actor that he moved me deeply. This is a large cast of brilliant comedic actors — Annaleigh Ashford as Essie, for example, who erupts into ballet at every cue like a cuckoo clock, but with less predictability. Elizabeth Ashley was perfect as the aristocratic fugitive from the Russian revolution working at Child’s restaurant and ready to deliver blintzes for any number. And Julie Halston as the vodka-besotted actress Gay Wellington takes the cake for bringing laughter: you just have to see how (in a bit I didn’t find in reading the play) she made it up the stairs reeling off “There once was a man from Nantucket …. “ it was … well, this production is near the end of its run — but if you can see You Can’t Take It With You, you’re in for a good time.
You Can’t Take It With You plays on Broadway at the Longacre Theatre through November 30, 2014.