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May 23, 2012

Everyman Theatre closes season with revival of 'You Can't Take It With You'

In the thick of the Great Depression, a new Broadway play took an energetic swing at everything that seemed wrong with the world -- government, big business, social conformity -- and left the audience in stitches.

In the wake of the Great Recession, "You Can't Take It With You" still hits home and still provokes a lot of good laughs, a point reiterated by Everyman Theatre's revival of the 1936 George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart comedy.

Come to think of it, the piece might be even more relevant, given how so many of today's one-percenters act like they truly believe they can take it with them.

There remains something deliciously radical about the characters who inhabit the New York home of the elderly Martin Vanderhof, he of the whatever-makes-you-happy school of philosophy. They all do what most of us can only fantasize about -- quit jobs, plunge into hobbies (even making fireworks in the basement), get all communal with friends and quickly friended strangers, talk back to the IRS, not give a hoot what other people think.

Of course, life can't really be like this, right? The subtly subversive power of the play comes from the way it keeps making you doubt that, keeps shifting the parameters of normality.

In the much-extended Vanderhof household, time doesn't matter as much as how you fill it. And the way they fill it is fundamentally, blissfully selfish, yet, somehow, within a caring environment. How cool is that?

The Everyman production, directed by Vincent Lancisi, comes in ...

a little below the usual company standard. Some of the acting lacks punch, and the pacing, not to mention the quirkiness, could be edged up a notch in places. Even so, the strengths carry the day.

As Vanderhof, the tax-avoiding patriarch who walked away from the business grind and never looked back, Stan Weiman is pleasant, but not exactly commanding. His soft-spoken, sometimes tentative delivery keeps scenes from catching fire. Although the role doesn't require a Lionel Barrymore (star of the popular, unfortunately plot-tampered Frank Capra film version), a more idiosyncratic spark wouldn't hurt.

Caitlin O'Connell likewise could use a stronger dash of individuality in her otherwise accomplished portrayal of Vanderhof's granddaughter Penny, who writes plays simply because a typewriter got delivered to the house by mistake.

As Penny's daughter Essie, who flits about the place practicing ballet to limited artistic effect, Megan Anderson offers assured, nicely detailed work. She is especially funny in the last act, after the family's world has turned a bit more upside down than usual.

Clinton Brandhagen has a good romp as Essie's naive husband, Ed, a xylophone-clanking guy who prints anarchist slogans because they sound neat. Bruce Nelson jumps full-force into the role of Kolenkhov, the over-caffeinated Russian emigre who fits right into the wacky home.

Brianna Letourneau does a charming, sympathetic turn as Penny's “normal” daughter, Alice, in love with Tony Kirby, her well-off, well-situated boss. Matthew Schleigh smoothly conveys the mix of debonair and down-to-earth that accounts for Tony's appeal to Alice, and his willingness to go rogue.

The inevitable clash of families and values, caused when Tony arrives with his oh-so-stuffy parents a day early for dinner in the Vanderhof abode, is still comic dynamite. Carl Schurr (Mr. Kirby) and Deborah Hazlett (Mrs. Kirby) do a terrific job here, filling out this class menagerie in fine style. Hazlett scores major comic points with facial expressions alone.

Among the rest of the cast, the most vivid, persuasive contributions come from Barbara Pinolini as the drunken Gay Wellington; Kimberly Schraf as the once-grand Russian duchess Olga; Steve Sawicki as the defensive tax man; Chinai Hardy as the awfully tolerant maid Rheba; and Wil Love as the eccentric ice man who cameth and stayed.

Daniel Ettinger's engaging set and David Burdick's evocative costumes provide a lift for this welcome refresher course in how, as Grandpa Vanderhof says, "to just go along and be happy in our own sort of way."

Although the play calls for live kittens in the first scene, I was surprised to see such a young one brought out, especially since a loud explosion is part of that scene. The poor little thing didn't even look like it had learned to open its eyes. BARCS is given a credit in the program, which I assume means that a vet approved, but still.

"You Can't Take It With You" runs through June 17.

PHOTOS BY STAN SAROUH

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:00 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Everyman Theatre
        

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at baltimoresun.com/artsmash. This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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