The trouble with "You Can't Take It With You" is that you have to leave it at the theater. It's the sort of show to charm its way into even the hardest heart. Graced by such compleat performers as Jason Robards and Elizabeth Wilson, it tickles the funnybone, too.
In the Eisenhower Theater, director Ellis Rabb has mustered a revival of the Moss Hart/George S. Kaufman classic with snap; crackle and boom. It's an ensemble piece with everyone at his best, from actors to pyrotechnicians. The fireworks that punctuate the proceedings, by the way, back the punch of a Kaufman one-liner.
First produced on Broadway in 1936, the play concerns the extended family of one Martin Vanderhof: a crazy collection of dilletantes with infectious joie de vivre.
Sustained on a diet of cornflakes in Grandpa Vanderhof's New York townhouse, they variously scribble plays, practice ballet steps, collect snakes, fashion fireworks, tickle the xylophone, paint pictures, design calling cards -- over all of which the old man presides with bubbly cheer and wisdom. "It doesn't matter what the hobby is," says Grandpa. "The thing is to have one."
For these folks, however, a hobby's a whole life.The real fun begins when Vanderhof's granddaughter Alice -- his only relation with a regular job -- gets engaged to a scion of Wall Streeters, and his stuffed-shirt parents come to dinner. That scene, which brings the Vanderhof clan and their opposites -- played by Richard Woods and Meg Mundy -- into high comic relief, is an explosively funny show-stopper.
His mane whitened beyond his 60 years, Robards lends Martin Vanderhof a warmth and charisma all grandfathers should have. When he says grace -- thanking "Sir" for letting his family "go along and be happy in our own sort of way" -- he projects the easy authority of a man who is master of his fate, captain of his soul.
Robards' unhurried delivery, meanwhile, lets the lines' natural humor come out. When he asks his daughter Penny, the would-be dramatist, "What's new around here in the way of plays?", there is something in the way he says it -- half well-meant question, half good-natured tease -- that makes the audience giggle.
As Penny, Elizabeth Wilson manages a performance of daffy deception. There's method to that addled smile, as when she chides her daughter's boyfriend, Tony Kirby, "Your mother believes in spiritualism because it's fashionable. Your father raises orchids because he can afford to." To which, in a typically snappy exchange, daughter Alice, appealingly played by Maureen Anderman, adds, "My mother writes plays because eight years ago someone delivered a typewriter by mistake."
With every joke beautifully brought off, every bit of business well timed, there's so much talent on stage that Colleen Dewhurst gets to play a bit part (she's an exiled Russian countess, making ends meet as a waitress). But none of the talent is squandered; like the Vanderhof clan's leisure time, it's all wonderfully well spent. YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU -- At the Eisenhower through March 26.