You Can’t Take It With You, the 1936 hit comedy by George Kaufman and Moss Hart, won a Pulitzer, led to an Oscar-winning movie directed by Frank Capra, and has had a number of successful Broadway revivals, most recently in 2014, giving it the status of an American classic. Its antiquated three-act structure, the limitations of its drawing-room comedy form, and its immersion in Depression-era cultural concerns simultaneously give it the status of a quite elderly chestnut. Its somewhat deceptive ease of performance has made it a magnet for school and community theater productions, including its current mounting at Goose Creek Players in Purcellville, Virginia.
The setting is the living room of the Sycamore clan, a collection of eccentrics who, heartwarmingly, accept and love each other as much because of as despite their oddities. The sole gainfully employed member of the group, Alice (Kourtney Richards), falls in love with Tony Kirby Jr. (Elias Gannage), the son of a stuffy Wall Street banker (Gregg Carter). The family cultures clash during a disastrous dinner party, threatening the young couple’s relationship.
The main character in the play is Grandpa (Mike Goshorn). In a role that has been played by a series of A-list actors — Lionel Barrymore, Jason Robards, Art Carney, and James Earl Jones, among others — Goshorn gives a relaxed performance as the unflappable center of the chaotic household, able to dispense wisdom that ultimately resolves the play’s conflict. Grandpa’s quirk is that not believing in the income tax, he has never filed a return, landing him in trouble with the IRS.
Richards plays Alice as a sweet young girl head over heels in love with Tony, though highly anxious that her very odd family, whom she loves dearly, will torpedo their chances of marriage. Her instinct is to run from the conflict, while Tony — who has an increasing appreciation of the value of her family — continues to fight for their relationship. Both are cutely endearing, though in Tony’s third-act confrontation with his father, Gannage takes Tony too far over the top. Loud and fast is not the only, or necessarily the best, way to portray emotional intensity.
The show’s other roles are written less as fleshed-out characters than as embodied quirks. Paul Sycamore (John McArthur) builds fireworks in the basement. His wife, Penny (Anita Ault), continuously types plays that she never finishes. Essie Carmichael (Kim Paul) ceaselessly does warm-up stretches in the belief that she can become a ballerina. Her husband, Ed (Anthony Bonieskie), plays the xylophone and innocently prints radical-sounding slogans on slips of paper he distributes around the neighborhood with his wife’s candies.
Among the other denizens of the house are Rheba (Julie Jacoby), who mostly works in the kitchen, and Donald (Dylan Connell), a handyman, and Mrs. De Pinna (Jules Darmofalski). She is played as a seemingly depressed woman, regularly disrespected by other characters in a way that is not funny. If she is depressed, it may be because her husband, an onstage character in the Kaufman/Hart script, has been excised from the production, for reasons unclear.
In the 1920s and ’30s, Russian émigrés who fled the Soviet Union, some of them members of the former aristocracy, fascinated people in America and Europe. Sure enough, not one but two emigres turn up in You Can’t Take It With You. First is Madam Kolenkhov (Alayna Brumberg, in a role traditionally played by a male actor), a ballet teacher given to pushing people around and to declaring, in respect to most anything, “It stinks.” Brumberg pulls off a comic Russian accent and handles the physicality of the character well. Grand Duchess Olga (Jennifer Horvath), a cousin to the Tsar now working as a waitress, arrives and volunteers — tiara and all — for kitchen duty. The lines and jokes about fallen aristocracy, Stalin, Trotsky, and five-year plans have become stale in the 86 years since the play first opened.
Screwball comedies in the 1930s were a popular form of escapism from hard times. A common theme was that people would be happier if they weren’t so focused on work, achievement, and making money. Johnny Case (the Cary Grant character in Holiday) articulates this philosophy, which is also Grandpa’s core belief. He quit working in 1901, amusing himself since by attending commencements and watching the family circus. As he says, why work hard every day to make money (he has property income, which doubtless makes things easier) when you can’t take it with you when you die? It’s a sweet belief system if you have a roof over your head and plenty of food for everyone and, at a time when many people did not, the stuff of which dreams could be made.
Directed by Michael Carter, the production has entertaining moments but also pacing and timing problems, including frequently slow line pickups. To work at its best, You Can’t Take It With You should have a smooth, almost choreographed, feel to its flow, something this production lacks.
The set (Thomas Kane, Kelly Williams, and Brian Williams) depicts the Sycamores’ living room, with several entrances, dressed with a sofa, dining table and chairs, and an easy chair, with a desk upstage for Penny. Given the stage space, the look is cluttered, which while appropriate for the lives of the characters sometimes creates awkwardness in blocking and movement. Kati Anderson’s costumes were varied and a good deal of fun, with Alice’s blue dress for a significant date with Tony and a red artiste outfit for Madam Kolenkhov being memorable. For some reason, the Federal agents who arrest most of the cast at the end of the second act are dressed as the Blues Brothers.
Goose Creek Players began operation in 2018. You Can’t Take It With You is their seventh show. While showing some marks of the growing pains of a new company, the production attracted an enthusiastic audience.
Running Time: Two hours 10 minutes, including two intermissions.
You Can’t Take It With You plays April 29 and 30 at 7:30 pm and April 30, 2022, at 2:00 pm presented by the Goose Creek Players performing at the Franklin Park Arts Center, 36441 Blueridge View Lane, Purcellville, VA. Tickets ($16.25) are available online or at the door.
COVID Safety: Goose Creek Player’s COVID-19 Policies and Procedures are here.