We like to think that the willingness to live and let live is a fundamentally American virtue. You grow tomatoes and I ride a bike. What's the diff, as long I steer clear of your garden and you stay out of my spokes. Getting along is what the country's all about, unless it's getting ahead.
Few plays espouse this notion of peaceful coexistence as delightfully as "You Can't Take It With You," the George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart classic, which opened at Olney Theatre Saturday night for a run through Aug. 12.
No matter that eccentrics usually have a far rougher go of it on these shores and that much of the time Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" is a more accurate barometer of the national temper. "You Can't Take It With You" shows us the way we like to see ourselves -- staunchly egalitarian, fiercely individualistic, embracing diversity with open arms.
Given half a chance, the play can't fail to win over an audience, and Olney gives it more than that. The cast for the most part is highly likable, and director James D. Waring, clearly in a relaxed mood, has had a fine time orchestrating the madness.
The common error, mostly avoided here, is to force the nuttiness, to make this extended family of screwballs patently outrageous. That, however, is the judgment of someone on the outside looking in. For the characters themselves, their helter-skelter lives couldn't be more normal. If you play them that way, you're bound to get abundant laughs.
I can't say I see why Waring has bothered to install a fireman's pole in the Vanderhof living room, especially since it's right next to a functioning staircase. (Furthermore, as a running -- or sliding -- gag, it pays off in rapidly diminishing returns.) Nor is there a great deal of comic wisdom in allowing actor Tony Rizzoli to play an investigator from the IRS with an accent just this side of a cleft palate. Otherwise, the pandemonium at Olney is the natural result of characters pursuing their crazy enthusiasms with a loving industry that far outstrips their talent.
Grandpa Vanderhof (the congenial Tom Toner) quit Wall Street 35 years ago to look after his stamp collection, throw darts and attend any commencement exercise within commuting distance. His daughter Penelope Sycamore (Halo Wines, borrowing her bobbed hairdo and her wide-eyed wonder from Betty Boop) writes plays because a typewriter was once mistakenly delivered to the house. Granddaughter Essie (Brigid Cleary, cheerfully if unsuccessfully defying gravity's laws) practices her ballet steps and prepares batches of coconut and fudge candy -- often simultaneously.
In one corner or another of the house, gloriously spangled fireworks are being invented; Trotsky's maxims are being printed on a hand press; bad portraits are getting painted; pet snakes are digesting their daily ration of houseflies; and someone is picking out "Alice Blue Gown" on the xylophone. That's before things get really busy.
And right at the heart of the zaniness is a romance so Hollywood picture-perfect that you half expect a drugstore soda fountain to pop into view. He (Leland Orser) is the boss's son, a dashing young man in a boater and white bucks. She (Marguerite Kelly) is the Sycamore family beauty, sweet as violets and just as modest. Kaufman and Hart, master craftsmen that they were, knew just what they were doing when they had these two fall head over heels in love.
The romance, blushingly conventional, serves as a necessary counterpoint to the chaos erupting everywhere else. At the same time it allows the authors to bring together the lovers' respective families -- his as snooty as hers is blithe -- for a disastrous dinner party in Act 2. The escalation from faux pas to outright affront to unmitigated calamity is as adroitly engineered as anything in the Kaufman and Hart oeuvre, and the scene plays as splendidly as ever at Olney.
Of course, it helps immeasurably that Terrence Currier is on hand as the swain's wealthy father -- puffing up his chest and looking down his nose as he natters on about the delights of raising costly orchids. In a comedy where everyone tends to say precisely what's on his mind, pretension is just asking to be taken down a peg or two. And sure enough, before long Currier has been pinned to the floor by a bug-eyed Russian ballet instructor (Irv Ziff) and his ulcer is screaming bloody murder.
But such is Kaufman and Hart's generous view of humanity that even the plutocrat has been clasped to the family's bosom by the play's end. But then, equality is extended to one and all. The black cook (Margo Hall) and her boyfriend (Michael W. Howell) are as much at home here as Mr. DePinna (Nick Cosco), the iceman who cameth eight years earlier and never lefteth.
There are lots of small parts in "You Can't Take It With You," but there really isn't a bad one. Everybody gets a punch line, a bit of business, a moment front and center. (David Marks, just standing there with a stupid expression on his face and a paper printer's hat on his head, is a little entertainment all by himself.)
What we have here -- in more ways than one -- is an endearing illustration of democracy in action.
You Can't Take It With You, by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Direction, scenery and lighting by James D. Waring; costumes, Rosemary Pardee. With Brigid Cleary, Nick Cosco, Terrence Currier, Margo Hall, Michael W. Howell, Marguerite Kelly, David Marks, John MacDonald, Leland Orser, Tony Rizzoli, Vivienne Shub, Tom Toner, Halo Wines, Irv Ziff. At Olney Theatre, through Aug. 12.