Monday, December 29, 2014

"You Can't Take It With You"

I used to get into all kinds of trouble with the theatre reviews on my website, back in the 1990’s, before the hideous word “blog” had even been invented.

I miss all that.  It was fun.  Let me roll up my sleeves and get into some trouble again.


Terrific shows aren’t as much fun to write about.  So this will be no fun at all.  YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU is terrific.

There are three kinds of actors in the cast: dead-on perfect, functionally really good, and pretty damn good.  

An example of the first is Fran Kranz, in the most difficult role of the juvenile; he looks great, a slightly offbeat heartthrob, and utterly and completely sincere and true to every word and every suggestion of the character.  He and Australian actress Rose Byrne, playing his harried fiancée, accomplish exactly the essential thing required in a madcap comedy – they tread with laser precision the fine line of comic foil and sincerity, genuine romance and attractiveness, amidst all the chaos, that makes the audience truly care that all comes out well for them, no matter how far the play veers and careens around them from slapstick to mayhem to literally exploding fireworks and live kittens and ersatz snakes (well, the kittens and snakes don’t explode, but you know what I meant.)

James Earl Jones gives an unlikely career performance, likewise breezily fielding two and a half acts of backseat comedy before stepping forward to still the insane proceedings, and affect the pin-drop-silent audience, with a devastatingly quiet and simple delivery of the play’s moral – a moral that the many decades since the play’s debut in 1936 has raised to religiously epic importance.  Kaufman and Hart weren’t just kidding around here.

Even in the supporting roles written for high exaggeration, the likes of Reg Rogers (as the Russian) and the formidable Elizabeth Ashley (as the other Russian) stay exactly inside the line of “Is It Real Or Is It Camp?” – lesser performers in a lesser production would no doubt have landed in the latter to the detriment of the play’s essentially sentimental, sweet nature.

If Annaleigh Ashford is the play’s standard-bearer for the purely exaggerated Ridiculous, and nothing more, she delivers that choice with aplomb and commitment, much as I would have liked a real sister-daughter character in there as well.  She is blithely treated by her fellow expert cast-members as a moth perennially caught fluttering around a lightbulb too high to deal with, and the production is so fine in every moment that the ensemble’s perfection is undiminished.

Comedy is hard – dying, etc. etc.  Regarding Scott Ellis’s direction, I threw my hat so hard in the air, it flew away and never came back.  Inferior revivals laced with contemporary condescension are the insulting meat-and-potatoes of our age.  A revival absolutely packed with nothing but integrity, compassion, sincerity, true to the best of high comic traditions and supported by a genuine belief in its own crazy world and characters, and ultimately filling the audience with the masterful playwrights’ underlying human concerns, is a very rare bird indeed – especially when generously furnished with a sensational, magnificently detailed set and the best music currently on Broadway (mood-setting rather than the main event).  None of that cheap-shit blackbox bare-stage with a few card tables type of thing here. Full on, full out.

You can’t take it with you, so whip out that cash and buy tickets to this outstanding production ASAP.

© 2014 Fred Barton

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