Well, they don’t write plays like they used to. One reason: Few theaters could afford to produce them.
“You Can’t Take It With You,” the 1936 screwball comedy by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, calls for a virtual army of major and minor characters — some of whom appear in only one scene — to shuffle on and off stage in logistically complicated traffic patterns.
The lively New Theatre production, anchored by TV actor Jim O’Heir, is performed by a cast of 19. Few theater companies would commit to the kind of payroll required to put that many performers onstage, but the New Theatre owners have almost always demonstrated shrewd commercial instincts.
Director Dennis D. Hennessy knows all about the intricacies of staging slamming-door farces with precise timing. And although this show isn’t really a farce, clockwork timing is everything as Kaufman and Hart fill up the stage with comic antics by eccentric characters. This show, featuring both veteran and younger actors, offers a classy ensemble of comic performances.
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The action unfolds in the downstairs living and dining room areas of the Sycamore home in New York. Penelope Sycamore (Debra Bluford) is an aspiring playwright who bangs away at a manual typewriter. Her husband, Paul Sycamore (Jim Korinke), fancies himself a fireworks designer and spends hours in the basement building and testing rockets with Mr. DePinna (O’Heir), an iceman who after a delivery years earlier decided to stay and become an honorary member of the family.
The adult Sycamore children are Alice (Molly Denninghoff), who is in love with a young business heir and hopes an engagement announcement is in the offing, and Essie Charmichael (Katie Karel), an untalented aspiring ballerina whose husband, Ed (Craig Benton), writes music for the xylophone.
The family patriarch is Martin Vanderhof (Victor Raider-Wexler), a grandfatherly, amiable tax cheat. Alice’s beau is young Tony Kirby (Seth Macchi), whose upper-crust parents (John Rensenhouse and Jan Rogge) show up a night early for a poorly planned engagement dinner.
The African-American servant and cook is Rheba (Enjoli Gavin), who is virtually a member of the family, as is Donald (Tosin Morohunfola), her unemployed boyfriend who acts as a sort of handyman. Mark Robbins shows up as Boris Kohlenkov, Essie’s Russian-born dance teacher.
The minor characters include an inspector from the IRS (Kevin Fewell), three G-men (Kyle Dyck, Bruce Hall and Jason Miller), a drunken actress (Cathy Barnett) “auditioning” for a part in one of Penelope’s plays and the Grand Duchess Olga Katrina (Dodie Brown), who makes a sudden appearance in the final scene.
Hennessy has staged a fast-moving romp in which the action at times turns into anarchy. But there’s nothing messy about the staging, and he has captured some indelible performances. O’Heir handles what is really a supporting role with consummate timing; he’s a big guy who’s light on his feet and brings a surprising level of physical grace to the stage.
Standouts include Karel, whose bad dancing provides some of the show’s funniest moments; Robbins, whose bombastic Boris is consistently vivid and amusing; Raider-Wexler, whose philosophical musings often take the form of sharp one-liners; Barnett, who does drunk extremely well; and Morohunfola, who brings a magnetic presence and an ironic sense of humor to the stage.
The show succeeds as entertainment on almost every level but it’s also a bit of a social history lesson. This play represents the “golden age” of Broadway comedies, and it reveals a level of sophisticated stagecraft by Hart and Kaufman that you simply don’t see in the generations of playwrights who came after.
The technical aspects — particularly Jim Misenheimer’s scenic design and Mary Traylor’s costumes — are first rate.