October 29, 2001


You Can't Take It With You

reviewed by
Lynn Trenning






















For more about Lynn Trenning, please visit her main page.

For more information about Theatre Charlotte, please visit theatrecharlotte.org.

(aired 11/2/01 on WFAE)

Loud explosions, a gorgeous set and the occasional hilarious moment can't save Theatre Charlotte's You Can't Take it With You from a script so nostalgia driven it alienates anyone in the audience younger than 60. Set in New York in the 1930's, the play introduces the household of Martin Vanderhof and the Sycamore family, replete with eccentric relations, servants, and various folks who dropped by years ago and never left. They are a montage of misfits who write plays, collect snakes, and mess around with fireworks in the basement instead of holding conventional jobs. Only the lovely Alice works outside of the home, and she has fallen in love with her boss's son, the very conventional Tony Kirby. You can almost guess the rest.

Rheba Sycamore is an accidental playwright. Paul Sycamore plays with Tinkertoys. Daughter Essie is a talentless ballerina married to a talentless musician. Nutty and embarrassing, they live for pleasure and they love each other immensely. Alternately, the Kirbys are rich, humorless, and have gastrointestinal problems. The obvious lesson is that life is short, so don't be a slave to The Man.

Yet somehow, the Sycamore refusal to conform comes off as self-centered and shallow, rather than individual in spirit. Grandpa Vanderhof's refusal to pay taxes rings hollow as he argues with a befuddled and apoplectic IRS man, while his granddaughter performs a background dance with American Flags. The times render this and other scenes tacky or worse.

The only black characters are household servant Essie, and her husband Donald who is a happy recipient of government RELIEF, and irritated that he has to wait in line a half an hour for it. This spawned a surprisingly modern bit of dialogue on welfare, which I felt enforced an unwelcome stereotype. It is also a prime example of the lack of pertinent African American dramatic roles.

In 1937, this play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and in 1938, Frank Capra's version won the Oscar for Best Picture. In Director Daina Giesler's version, the comedy achieved success in just a few scenes. Poor casting and dramatic overacting undermined much of the dialogue during Act One. By Act Two I had adjusted my expectations, and thankfully the cast too seemed to relax, and let the material do some of the work. Vanderhof is played with a twinkling eye and mellow demeanor by John Ahrens. His was the only understated performance, and he served as an anchor for the unstable cast. Andrea King was a perfect physical cast for the lovely daughter Alice. Unfortunately, it was impossible to ignore the consistently wooden delivery of her boyfriend Tony, played by Tom Cruise look-alike Paul Gibson.

Brian Ruggaber's set and Aimee Kandl's costumes stole the show. The intimate wood paneled sitting room accommodated all of the Sycamore's unusual hobbies. Mrs. Sycamore's collection of silky kimonos and matching hats defined her character's sense of whimsy more effectively than the loud and repetitious sing-song voice in which actress Treshel Washington delivered her lines.

The play shines during one perfectly hilarious scene involving a word game between the Kirbys and the Sycamores. Other than that, the idea of the Sycamore family is funnier than the reality.

Lynn Trenning, October 29, 2001

[ArtSavant link]
© 2000 - 2001 ArtSavant - enquiries to info@artsavant.com