Sunday, August 21, 2005

You Can't Take It With You (Great Lakes Theatre Festival)

YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU’ somwhat disappoints at GLTF

I’ve had a personal love affair with the play, ‘YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU’ since high school, when it was presented as my senior class production. I found it then and now both delightful and insightful.

Since it opened in 1936 to universal raves, including being granted that year’s Pulitzer Prize, it has become one of the most produced American plays. Unfortunately, due to its massive cast-size, it is most often done in amateur settings, such as high schools and community theatres where concern about how to pay the cast is not an issue. Therefore, it was with great anticipation that I looked forward to Great Lakes Theatre Festival’s professional production.

Unfortunately, the Thursday night I saw the production, the presentation was lethargic. The timing and the pacing were off. It lacked the spark, the enthusiasm, the zaniness that makes for good comic-farce. Most surprising is that GLTF, since Charles Fee became its Artistic Director, has made zany out of plays that shouldn’t have been. So, why did director Drew Barr’s production not enthrall me?

Theatre is ephemeral. The very fact that it is live makes it fleeting. One night’s production may not be the same as another. The mood of the cast members, the varying reactions and size of audience, even the weather, can affect the timing and the concentration. I am going to give GLTF the benefit of the doubt and assume that on another night, when they haven’t had a couple of day’s lay-off and the play was on a roll, it probably would have been a better production. However, I have to critique the production I saw, and, unfortunately, that one was lacking. Not bad, just lacking.

‘YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU’ was the third collaboration by the most important 1930s comedic/political playwrights, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Its stage success resulted in a 1938 film which won an Academy Award for best picture.

The play relates the humorous encounter between the Kirbys a conservative upper class family and the eccentric household of Grandpa Martin Vanderhof. Grandpa's collection of idiosyncratic individualists amuse with their energetic physical antics and inspire with their wholehearted pursuit of happiness. The play requires a stage full of chaotic activity from beginning to end. One character continually dances around the stage, the maid’s boy friend charges in and out of the house at will. Another “guest” hates everything as he rants against the Soviets. Government agents enter and leave on various quests. A woman writes plays because a typewriter was accidentally delivered years ago. A fireworks manufacturing plant in the house’s basement explodes. Cookies packed in boxes with anti-government slogans are produced. And, in the midst of this chaos, Grandpa, who many years ago just got up and walked out of his successful business because he wasn’t having “any fun,” spends his life looking at his stamp collection, ignoring income tax bills, going to commencement speeches and generally enjoying life.

This is a play of witty one-liners and visual theatricalism, is a perfect example of the well-constructed play. And, although it is undeniably escapist theater which prompts immediate enjoyment, it brings up strong questions of what’s the best way to live and what should be the role of the government in people’s lives.

GLTF’s production is housed in a beautifully designed set by Gage Williams. The huge stained-glass windowed room is filled with a garage sale shopper’s dream of odds and ends. The curtain rose to an ovation for the set.

There are many positive aspects to the production. Times Tribute winner Wayne Turney was born to play Martin Vanderhof. He gives a low-key performance in which every twinkle in his eye adds to the merriment. He places himself clearly in the center of the wheel on which the rest of the cast should be supportive spokes.

Another Times Tribute winner, Andrew May, is given full reign to produce maniacal and hysterical rage. His Boris is what the rest of the cast should attempt to be....a farcical instrument who keys in on the character and plays it for all he can. It’s worth seeing the production to watch May do a full body attack on stuff-shirt Dudley Swetland in a hysterically funny wrestling scene. Nina Domningue’s Rheba is also on key. Meg Chamberlain is a hoot as the drunken actress who spends most of one act lying under a blanket on the floor and the rest on her back with open-legs straddling a piano bench. Dudley Swetland (Mr. Kirby) is fine when he pontificates.

On the other hand, some of the other actors simply don’t infuse the right tone in their characters. Lynn Allison doesn’t have the necessary ditsy quality needed for Penelope. George Roth, as her husband, and Marc Moritz as their son-in-law, walk through their roles without establishing any definable characterizations. Kathryn Chrasaro spends so much time concentrating on her faux dancing that she forgets to make meaning of her lines. Anne McEvoy (Mrs. Kirby) isn’t upper class matronly enough as the intended mother-in-law. Elizabeth Davis (Alice) fails to develop the charming characterization needed for the young female love interest. There seems to be little love-magic between her and Jeff Cribbs, who plays Tony.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Maybe my expectations were too high but I found the production of GLTF’s ‘YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU’ lethargic, missing the needed finite characterizations to make this wonderful play delightful and insightful. Maybe I just saw it on an off night.