Tuesday, October 1, 2013

You Can't Take It With You

Evan Needham, Molly Harvis
The 1937 Pulitzer Prize winning play You Can’t Take It With You, now on stage at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka, is a madcap comedy about an eccentric extended American family.  If there was doubt this is an American classic, a production like this proves it.

 David Simms as grandfather Vanderhof serves as the calm eye of this modest hurricane, but everybody provides comic moments while grounding this group in earnest eccentricity: Ken Klima as the fireworks-making father, Lora Canzoneri as the amateur playwright mother, Sarah Traywick as the dancing daughter and Jon Edwards as her xylophone-playing husband.

 Recently I quoted an interview I did with Jason Robards Jr. backstage on Broadway. The play he was doing was the 1983 revival of You Can’t Take It With You. I later spent a pleasant hour with other members of the cast, including the great character actors Elizabeth Wilson and Bill McCutcheon. Every version of this play depends on a talented ensemble working together, even with a star like Robards. That’s no less true of the North Coast Rep production.

Characters played by Arnold Waddell, Taylen Winters and Saul Tellez round out the household. The love story that drives the conflict involves the rich boy (Evan Needham) whose parents (Sam Clauder and Shullie Steinfeld) don’t approve of the poor girl (Molly Harvis as Martin’s granddaughter) and especially her unconventional family. Anders Carlson as the Russian dance teacher jolts the energy into another gear whenever he appears, and small but essential moments are played by Jacqui Cain, Robert Garner and Tony Martinez.

 On opening night the clarity of both Mack Owen’s direction and the performances proved that the play itself is a solid wonder, an unlikely delight transcending its time.

 North Coast Rep honors the play’s three-act form (with two intermissions), standard for the 1930s though a novelty these days. But it works really well in three acts and does not seem long. The conflict of valuing the pursuit of money over living other dreams also furnished the theme of such plays as Philip Barry’s Holiday (most famous as the 1938 Cary Grant/Katherine Hepburn movie) and Herb Gardner’s A Thousand Clowns (with Jason Robards, who also starred in the 1965 film.) But it’s interesting that I can’t think of recent examples.

 Calder Johnson is scenic and lighting director, Jenneveve Hood did the subtly striking costumes, Michael Thomas did the sound. You Can’t Take It With You plays weekends at NCRT through October 12.

 You Can't Make This Up: How You Can't Take It With You Happened

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.  This is an accurate rendition of how
they worked--except that while Kaufman typed, Hart paced.
The craziness on stage in You Can't Take It With You is at least matched by the bizarre process of how the play was written.

George S. Kaufman was one of the most successful Broadway playwrights in history, and the younger Moss Hart (by 15 years) was not far behind. They had collaborated on two successful plays, and became friends.

 In 1936 they carved out time in their busy Broadway and Hollywood careers (Hart had just been nominated for an Oscar as a screenwriter) to work on a project that they soon realized wasn’t going to work. Hart, known for his emotional highs and lows, was in despair. Kaufman, who famed critic Brooks Atkinson called “the gloomy dean of Broadway wits,” remembered a Hart idea from two years before, about a mad but loveable family.

 They talked it out, figuring out the eccentric characters. With their excitement mounting, Kaufman contacted his producer to book a theatre and hire a specific list of actors to play these characters—all before they had a story or anything written.  Then Kaufman and Hart wrote frantically, with the particular talents of these actors to guide them.

They started in a way no playwriting teacher would ever advise: with a peripheral character, not even a member of the family.  But Kaufman wanted and got Frank Conlan, a comic skilled in pantomine.  He signed him up to play Mr. De Pinna, a guy who had delivered ice to the house seven years before and never left.  Kaufman and Hart designed a pantomime for him--posing in a toga as the Discus Thrower for the family painter (and playwright.)  Once they knew they had Conlan, they pretty much wrote the play to lead up to this scene, providing its structure.
The classic film of "Stage Door," though very different
from the Kaufman play.

Then the two writers drew from everything around them. Hart recalled a word association game he’d played with Richard Rodgers and Barbara Stanwyck (among other show business luminaries of the time), and used it in the play to reveal character. Kaufman got a pretentious invitation from a former Russian nobleman now in the fur business, and this inspired the Russian émigrés who are so essential to the story. The exile of a Russian grand duchess who is pretty happily working as a New York waitress is a neat variation on this family nobly falling into humble fates that fulfill them.

 Kaufman had just done a large ensemble comedy (Stage Door) and the movie he’d been writing may have influenced this play’s zany moments—it was the Marx Brothers’A Night at the Opera. Meanwhile he was literally hiding out to escape a court subpoena in a Hollywood sex scandal, so he placed two of his characters in legal jeopardy.

 Kaufman emerged from hiding to direct the play with a title he and Hart didn’t like: You Can’t Take It With You.  Author Geoffrey Whitworth (who G.B. Shaw credited as one of the most important figures in British theatre) described Kaufman's directing style: "the director has rehearsed his players as though they were an orchestra and this mad family played a lunatic symphony against a background which served as a staccato accompaniment."

There was one casting problem that took awhile to overcome: they couldn't find the right young woman to play the only "sane" person in the family, the ingenue/love interest Alice. Out of town tryouts weren't encouraging. It was only solved  at the last minute with the hiring of a new actor right before the play was scheduled to open on Broadway.
1936 Broadway. One or more of these actors were also in the Capra film.

By then Hart was near hysteria, certain the play would fail. It opened on Broadway on Dec. 14, 1936 and was an immediate and enduring hit, the most honored of the Kaufman and Hart collaborations.

the Capra version
The play tells a very American tale, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that the Oscar-nominated film version got the Frank Capra treatment. The play is better.

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