YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU, by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart; directed by Douglas C. Wager; scenery by Karl Eigsti; costumes by Marjorie Slaiman; lighting by Allen Hughes.
With Leslie Cass, Richard Bauer, Annalee Jefferies, Timothy Jerome, Joe Palmierl, Christina Moore, John Christopher Jones, Terrence, Currier, Halo Wines, Brenda J. Davis, David Toney, Mark Hammer, Eunice Anderson, Joanne Hrkach and Marshall Borden.
At Arena Stage through Jan. 27.
Underneath all its cheap tricks, "You Can't Take It With You" is a silly, shallow, contrived insult to the intelligence of the discriminating theatergoer. Fortunately, the discriminating theatergoer was nowhere to be seen in the audience at Arena Stage last night, and the rest of us were having a pretty good time.
Resident theater companies are fond of this play for, I suspect, the same general reasons that high school drama societies are; It gives everybody a chance to show off his talents. Well, there are talents aplenty on exhibit in this production, from the stars all the way to the valiant men and women of the Arena prop shop.
"You Can't Take It With You" remains an innocent, highly premature (it was written in 1936) piece of libertarian propaganda, a friendly warning against the nine-to-five lockstep of middle age. It was George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's celebration of eccentricity, studied full of devices that have been mainstays of American comedy ever since -- emancipated grandparents, strange doings in the basement, slightly saucy word-association games and erroneous police invasions. b
The patriarch of the play, Martin Vanderhof, tends snakes and refuses to pay any income tax. His matronly daughter writes plays, for the very good reason that someone once delivered a typewriter to the house by mistake, but she has yet to finish a single work -- neither the labor play nor the religious play nor the sex play ("Sex Takes a Holiday") nor the war play ("Poison Gas"). Her husband manufactures fireworks in the basement and, in his free time, plays with his erector set. (He is also, it should be known, played by Richard Bauer, excellent news about which more later.) Their elder daughter actually has a gainful occupation -- candy-making -- but dreams of a career in ballet at which, according to her Russian dance instructor, "she stinks"). Her husband, who delivers the candy, is also an amateur printer who, for purely apolitical reasons, inserts marxist slogans inside the candy boxes.
This is a household in which, if you ask the time of day, you get told, "It was five o'clock a couple of hours ago." And it is the household that Alice Sycamore, its only normal member, valiantly struggles to hide from the rest of the world, meaning chiefly her Wall Street fiance and his stuffy parents.
Ordinarily, we expect a hero and heroine of this sort to be played by a couple of bland young performers with nondescript good looks. Timothy Jerome and Annalee Jefferies seem, at first glance, all too descript and not nearly enough of a contrast to their eccentric elders. But before long their unselfconscious romantic fervor and utter absorption in each other become absolutely winning.
"You Can't Take It With You" contains one of the funniest bashful proposals of marriage in theatrical history, with Tony, the young Wall Streeter, gradually verifying the seasons of the calendar when Alice would rather be with him than anyone else. "Well," he finally concludes, "that's the whole year, I guess," Jerome and Jefferies play this with just the right mixture of awkwardness and glee, and remind us that there are some things about even a fairly crude comedy that require more than high-school-level acting skills.
A rather broader and more boisterous performance is rendered by Mark Hammer as the Russian, who won me over within seconds of his entrance by casually tossing his hat to a perfect landing on a coat rack about five feet away. (He missed when he tried again an act later, but by then we all knew he could do it if he wanted to.) Perhaps more significantly, Hammer has developed several extremely funny, more-or-less Russian ways of saying "It stinks!" and has, for the occasion, dressed up his eyebrows so they seem all but ready to leap out at his fellow actors.
The subject of hair leads inexorably to the subject of Richard Bauer, whose rebellious, Dry-Look attempt at a pompadour -- all entangled in earmuffs -- is only the lid on the litany of his sartorial effects. Sporting a railroad stoker's overalls with a great rag hanging from the back pocket, smoking (or at any rate clenching in his teeth) a cigarette that seems to be perched at a completely unprecedented angle, Bauer is even more than usually funny -- and he has applied his grab-bag gifts, this time, to a part for which no comic measure could be too extreme.
Karl Eigsti has created a handsome gingerbread home for the play -- and why not add here that the scenery looks particularly attractive because it is on the stage of one of the best-designed theaters in Washington or anywhere, the 500-seat Kreeger.
"You Can't Take It With You" is not a subtle play. When you see an aquarium full of snakes on stage, (live snakes too, by the way), you somehow know a woman will be screaming shortly. (This was 1936, remember.) When a man comes bounding out of the basement with a rocket in his hand, you can lay a bet that there's an explosion coming. And when a drunken woman passes out, on a couch, you kind of figure she'll come to life at the most awkward moment.
But, when the traps are laid with artistry, it doesn't matter if you can predict them all. You can still take pleasure in seeing your predictions come true.