One of the strongest elements of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's comedic three-act play You Can't Take It With You is the heaps of feel-good energy it piles on to its examination of an eccentric family's dynamics. Often family dramas are told through major moments—holidays, weddings, funerals, and milestone birthdays—but not so in this play. We are not meeting its main characters, the Sycamore family, in a momentous time when everything is about to change, but on a day when everything is exactly the same as it's always been and, one hopes, always will be. Director Peter Jensen certainly had his hands full with this staging. You Can't Take It With You is a 19-character play set in a small room where almost all 19 cast members are often onstage at once. The space is further constricted by the Gloria Maddox Theater's tiny size, making a small room feel even smaller. Fortunately, this feeling of tightness lends itself to the overall experience, giving the audience members the sensation that they are sitting in the Sycamore family's living room, just another member of their ever-growing tribe.
Many of the house's residents are visiting or live-in friends rather than members of the family. There is Rheba (Shirine Babb), the sassy maid; Rheba's unemployed boyfriend Donald (Peter Aguero), who acts as the Sycamores' cook; Kolenkhov (Laurence Cantor), a tightly wound Russian dance teacher; Gay Wellington (Kathleen Isbell), a washed-up, drunken actress who crashes on their window seat; and Mr. DePinna (John Mulcahy), who visited the family nine years ago to deliver ice and never left.
After spending a morning with this off-the-wall clan, it is easy to see why. Though admittedly different from your typical American brood, they are completely open-minded and accepting when it comes to strangers in need. They are also joyful, pleasant people content with one another's company and anyone else drawn into their vibrant circle of life.
Grandpa Martin Vanderhof (Peter Judd) is the patriarch of the family, which includes a daughter, Penny (Margot Bercy), a perky woman who has been working on plays ever since a typewriter was accidentally delivered to her door eight years ago; her husband Paul (Jerry Rago), who makes fireworks in the basement; and their two daughters, Essie (Jamie Neumann) and Alice (Jacqueline van Biene). Essie loves to dance and is always practicing around the house, though after several years of lessons she can do little more than bow gracefully. Alice is the black sheep, which in this family means she is really more of a white one. Not only has she found success in a banking job on Wall Street, but her boss's handsome son, Tony (Josh Sienkiewicz), has fallen in love with her.
The play's silly characters, screwball antics, and lighthearted look at the world made it an instant hit when it was first staged in the 1930s, while America was suffering from the Great Depression. At that time, most people had little else than their families, and You Can't Take It With You played an important role in reminding them of the value in that. In 1937 the play won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, and it has since stood the test of time. Though some references and characters are obviously nods to the political climate of the 30s, they are still funny to a contemporary audience, if no longer relevant.
Overall, there is a lot of passion in this play, found not only in its themes but also in its execution. Jensen knows this work and clearly understands the elements that make it special and appealing. He has added his own personal touches to a classic tale, including scene transitions that feature the characters dancing their way offstage, tossing props to each other as they exit. This effectively prepares the stage for the following scene while keeping the actors in character and the audience in the story.
Peter Judd is excellent as Grandpa, particularly as he delivers a hilarious and yet strangely reasonable monologue to an IRS man (Blake Hackler) about the income tax and why he refuses to pay it. He also drives home the story's central themes about living life on your own terms and following your heart, even if the world considers you crazy for doing so.
The combination of these poignant themes, powerful writing, and loving direction sends you from the theater with a warm, fuzzy feeling inside, and that is something you can always take with you.