Rarely did a play arrive with better timing than You Can't Take It With You, the joyfully optimistic paean to the American spirit that earned its Pulitzer in 1936, when the country was licking the wounds of collective Depression. The comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart is at 2nd Story Theatre (through August 2), and they're doing a terrific job bringing the heartening reminder about being carefree to today's financially distracted audiences.
Why suffer the stress of a dog-eat-dog business life when you can frolic like puppies with friends and loved ones? That's the message of the collective hero of this play, a family as indiscriminately inclusive as this country likes to think it is. An iceman arrived eight years before, liked the household, and never left. Another guy came to dinner and not only stuck around but also married into the family. Whatever makes one of them happy is fine with everyone else there. A typewriter was misdelivered, so one of them began writing plays. Bad plays, but nobody is keeping track.
Seeing as this laff riot was a collaboration — Kaufman and Hart wrote several other plays together — 2nd Story head honcho Ed Shea decided to share the fun with two other directors. So the first act was ringmastered by the theater's co-founder, Pat Hegnauer; the second by actor and director Bob Colonna; and the last by Shea.
How appropriately distributed. Hegnauer is a master of the two- and three-person play, so she was put in charge of soundly establishing the characters. Colonna does wonders with comic timing, so the free-for-all act is his. The forte of Shea, who almost always directs the plays here, is to pump up the vitality so that we don't want to blink, lest we miss something, so he gets to gallop everything to the finish line. (Yet without rushing things — refreshingly, he has this old warhorse stop to sniff the dandelions before resuming the race.) The combined result doesn't come across as a comedy created by committee, but rather as one informed by extra imaginations.
All right, all right — the uplifting message of this comedy is limited by being a middle-class one, since the family and its blithe patriarch, grandpa Martin Vanderhof (Colonna), don't have to worry too hard about money. He enjoys a steady, if modest, income from rental properties, having given up the business world rat race decades before.
His daughter, Penny (Margaret Melozzi), is the hapless though upbeat playwright. Her husband, Paul (Walter Cotter), plays with Erector Sets and makes fireworks in the basement, which provides an occasional comical soundtrack of muffled explosions. Their daughter, Essie (Hillary Parker), loves to dance and never stops posing or stretching. Her husband, Ed (Jonathan Jacobs), delivers the candy she makes, but he spends most of his time playing the xylophone and printing Bolshevik slogans on his printing press. Essie's lack of talent is ignored even by her ballet instructor, expansive Russian émigré Boris Kolenkhov (Tom Roberts). ("Life is chasing around inside of me like squirrels," he announces, speaking for this entire squirrelly crew.)
Yet upon every such picnic some rain must fall. So young Alice Sycamore (Erin Sheehan), while she loves her family dearly, has fallen in love at the office with her boss's son, Tony Kirby (Dillon Medina), and she doesn't want to be embarrassed by her eccentric family. Needless to say, the scene is in Bohemian disarray when in walk her fiancé's parents, the stiffly correct Anthony W. Kirby (Eric Behr) and his reluctantly repressed wife, Miriam (Peggy Becker). The production is blessed with good actors, but Medina needs to be singled out for a touching but underplayed confrontation, as the son unleashes a lifetime of warranted anger at his father. Kudos too to Shea for the lengthy, echoing silence after the scene.
This rendition of You Can't Take It With You is brought into our century by replacing what was a black servant and her boyfriend with a white one, Rheba (Laura Sorensen) and her mannishly dressed lesbian lover (Amy Thompson). But it's really timeless, reminding us that an openhearted spirit and tolerance for differences are traits that this country can be proud of for as long as they persist.