The meteorologist may still have a surprise or two in store for us. But as for the drama, the chilly winter that has plagued the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater has come to a welcome end with a well-nigh perfect revival of Kaufman and Hart's enduring comedy, "You Can't Take It With You."
The play remains just as funny as it must have been back in 1936 when it won the Pulitzer Prize and took more than a few minds off the depressing realities of the Depression. But it is also a warm and wonderful piece that celebrates the human race as a club eminently worth belonging to. If this revival, which opened Saturday, doesn't pick you up and send you out into the streets, seeing hyacinths where there are as yet none and smelling cherry blossoms that for the moment are only buds-to-be, you are impervious to the joy of the theater and the promise of spring.
Most revivals of "You Can't Take It With You" get the laughs. Kaufman and Hart were such sure-fire craftsmen that only the grimmest of amateurs can kill all their humor. But fewer productions find the warmth and wonder that knit together the members of the Sycamore family and the assorted oddballs who dropped by at one time or another, liked the climate and took up permanent lodging in what amounts to a round-the-clock fun house. Director Ellis Rabb, who has a decided gift for animating treasures out of our theatrical past (remember his splendid "Royal Family"?), has balanced the slam-bang antics with a sweet tenderness that is certain to raise lumps in a fair number of throats.
The 17-member cast--another luxury after the penny-pinching two and three character plays that have become standard fare in today's theater--is grade-A from top to bottom, left to right, kitchen to basement. Jason Robards, taking a breather from the torments of O'Neill, has never been so affable or so relaxed as he is in the skin of Grandpa Vanderhof, the patriarch of the clan, while Elizabeth Wilson, as Penny Sycamore, creature of a thousand enthusiasms, floods the stage with sunshine merely by walking on, her motherly eyes bright with the possibilities of a new day at the typewriter, the easel or the dining room table.
Any production that saves such a consummate actress as Colleen Dewhurst for a cameo in the third act or can afford to use George Rose's gifts in a supporting role has to be confident of itself. This one is. Dewhurst turns up late in the game as the Grand Duchess Olga, cousin of the czar, now reduced to waitressing at Child's, but in five minutes flat you know and love her as much as the other screwballs who have been pursuing their little passions and pastimes from the start. Rose is an exiled ballet master, the kind of flamboyant Russian George Irving tried to give us in "On Your Toes." Rose succeeds effortlessly.
Kaufman and Hart's characters constitute an extended family of eccentrics, all of whom have learned that the rat race is indeed for rats and that it's far better to dedicate your energies, as daughter Essie (Carol Androsky) does, to badly executed plie's and entrechats, if that's what you really want out of life. Everyone in the Sycamore house is up to some bit of profligate nonsense. Paul (Jack Dodson), the father, makes fireworks in the basement with Mr. DePinna (Bill McCutcheon), who sometimes poses in a Roman toga for Penny, when Penny isn't writing her war play or her sex play on a typewriter mistakenly delivered to the house eight years ago.
Grandpa trots off regularly to circuses and commencement exercises--related spectacles, really. Son-in-law Ed (Christopher Foster) prints maxims by Trotsky on a hand press--because he likes printing, not Trotsky. A Sycamore dinner, prepared by the unflabble Rheba (Rosetta Le Noire), consists of cornflakes, watermelon and "some kind of meat." Yes, there are bats galore in this dramatic belfry. But without downplaying the habitual madness, director Rabb has given the play a subtle twist that makes all the difference.
This "You Can't Take It With You" is not so much about eccentrics doing their thing, as we have come to say. It's really about peaceful co-existence. (Notice the lovely sparkle in Wilson's eye as she calmly surveys the chaos about her!) What Rabb has chosen to emphasize is the unstated pride everyone takes in everyone else, however cockamamie their projects and passions may appear to the outside world. Love has taken up permanent residence in the Sycamore family, just as the milkman once did.
As a result, what is generally referred to as the conventional love interest in the play no longer seems quite so conventional. You really do want daughter Alice, the enchanting Maureen Anderman, to marry Tony, her handsome Arrow collar profile beau in the person of Nicolas Surovy. Their courtship is not an intrusion on a zany universe, a momentary halt in the tomfoolery, but rather an integral part of it. If the Sycamores are right about life, guests and the pursuit of happiness, the lovers, too, have their rightful place here, along with the snakes, kittens and the American flag.
When Tony's wealthy parents come calling in the second act, "You Can't Take It With You" erupts in a colossal to-do. However, the scene is not just a pitting of the nuts against the stuffpots, the proper against the improper. What's really in question is tolerance and fundamental decency, and Rabb never loses sight of the stakes. For a "popular" comedy, this one is actually brimming with wisdom. Boy gets girl. But better than that, humanity manages to extend its boundaries and usher a few more souls into its embrace.
I'm not sure you'll be thinking that, as "You Can't Take It With You" rolls its merry course. There are too many immediate pleasures along the way--a grandly cluttered set by James Tilton, some spankingly accurate costumes from the sewing machine of Nancy Potts, and even a selection of top tunes of the 1930s, all of which work their own enchantments. But once the curtain has fallen, you'll feel awfully good about your neighbor. And yourself.
And, yes, the Kennedy Center.