First Nighter: 'You Can't Take It With You' Takes You With It Merrily

On the way into You Can't Take It With You, the revival at the Longacre of the 1936 George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart comedy, I ran into Anne Kaufman Schneider. For those who don't know, Schneider is Kaufman's daughter and the primary keeper (now that Kitty Carlisle Hart is gone) of the collaborators' flame.

Since I know her slightly, I said hello and reminded her where we'd met, et cetera. Well worth understanding about Schneider -- at least from what I've picked up in our brief acquaintance -- is that she has inherited two traits from her father: his sense of humor and his suffer-no-deficient-production-gladly attitude.

I asked her if she'd seen the new production. (She recalled that she saw the original production when she was nine or so.) She said she'd already attended this one more than once and would be at the opening. Then she said, "It's good."

There you have it. If Anne Kaufman Schneider approves, that's all you need to know. "Good" from Anne Kaufman Schneider is high praise. She would likely have been director Scott Ellis' harshest critic if she hadn't liked what he'd presided over.

So I took my seat and, as the production exploded like the actual fireworks that are a big part of the action, I was hardly surprised to learn that this You Can't Take It With You is, as Schneider declared, good. It's very good. It's very, very good.

How good? Let's count the ways when the wonderfully eccentric family of patriarch Martin Vanderhof (James Earl Jones) hits a potential crisis: relatively normal daughter Alice (Rose Byrne) falls in love with rich Tony Kirby (Fran Kranz), whose parents (Byron Jennings, Joanna Day) are as strait-laced in their manner as Vanderhof's family is on-the-surface nutty in theirs.

If you take for granted -- you certainly can -- that the success of the production starts with the beautifully constructed, laugh-a-minute Kaufman-Hart script, then the next biggest plus here has to do with the expert cast.

Rarely have I seen such a large collection of scene-stealers on one stage. Check that. There's so much hilarity occurring that no one can steal a complete scene. What these thieving actors do is steal extended moments. They make off with eye-popping sequences that have been carefully focused by Ellis, whose contribution here is impeccable.

Vanderhof's daughter Penny (Kristine Nielsen) has married Paul Sycamore (Mark Linn-Baker), and so it's the Sycamores also on display. At this late date few theatergoers have to be told how Nielsen cleverly gets laughs whenever she's let loose. She has her usual high time with Penny, to whom a typewriter was mistakenly delivered eight years earlier and so prompted her to write plays in which, for instance, a young girl enters a monastery.

Penny busy typing -- the first thing viewed when the lights go up on David Rockwell's marvelously cluttered revolving set -- is followed quickly by the arrival of daughter Essie (Annaleigh Ashford), a would-be ballerina almost always in toe shoes and ready to improvise an agitated dance (Nathan Peck is the dance consultant) whenever xylophonist hubby Ed Carmichael (Will Brill) picks out a jittery tune.

Nielsen, Ashford and Brill, whose oddball physicality is another major howl, are only the beginning of the keenly calibrated raucous amusement. Reg Rogers grabs his moments as Essie's fiery Russian ballet master. Elizabeth Ashley as Russian Grand Duchess Olga, cousin to the Czar and now a waitress and blintz specialist, works her reliable magic.

Purloining a series of moments, Julie Halston earns applause as soused actress Gay Wellngton reciting a limerick through her drunken stupor. This is not to overlook Crystal Dickinson as efficient family retainer Rheba and husband Donald (Marc Damon Johnson), always ready to sprint somewhere on a Sycamore errand. There's Patrick Kerr as fireworks maker Mr. DePinna, who doubles as model for Penny's portrait of a Greek. Okay, no one in the cast of 19 -- count 'em 19 -- lets the side down. (Hudson Theatrical Associates handles the special effects.)

Byrne and Kranz have the young lovers roles -- the writing of which Kaufman is known to have turned over pretty much to Hart. They get much credit for refusing to turn sweetly bland amid the flummery. In her Broadway debut and wearing a succession of costume designer Jane Greenwood's '30s finery, Byrne does well at the frustration Alice experiences when initially bringing Tony's parent into contact with her spinning menagerie. Kranz is juicily earnest and particularly strong when confronting his father as the denouement gathers.

(Tony's balking at the family-business assignment into which he's been shoehorned is reminiscent of Philip Barry's 1928 Holiday, wherein Johnny Case wants to vacation when young and join the corporate world later on.)

Jones hovers over Ellis' funzapoppin' proceedings as if he's a benevolent sun smiling down. Appearing as a man who long ago left business to spend time attending commencements and doing other activities that give him pleasure (like keeping snakes for a hobby), he's meant to be the voice of wisdom. And everybody knows how persuasive Jones's voice is. For whatever reason -- the actor is 83 and apparently has breathing problems -- he remains seated for much of his performance. Nevertheless, he stands tall throughout.

Kaufman and Hart wrote You Can't Take It With You during the Depression, but to paraphrase a Stephen Sondheim lyric in reference to the Vanderhof home occupants, "In the depression are they depressed? Nowhere near." In fact, at no point in the play is there a mention of the country's economic difficulties. This reflects how the era widely promoted escapist entertainment. Yes, there's an Eleanor Roosevelt joke. (When wasn't there during those years?) The famous-at-the-time restaurants Childs and Schrafft's are recalled, but no forgotten man is remembered.

Kaufman and Hart obviously set out to insist it was possible to be happy in hard times. Twice offering grace at his dinner table, Vanderhof informs the Lord that his charges are doing fine. Certainly Hart and the arguably chronically depressed Kaufman wanted to demonstrate that happiness is just a matter of psychological adjustment. Their title alone is intended to be a reminder.

You Can't Take It With You still makes the statement grandly. Thanks to Ellis' deft hand and his first-rate cast, what audiences are guaranteed to take with them when exiting is the kind of complete and total happiness that borders on euphoria.

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