Sunday, April 23, 2017

Farcical “You Can’t Take It With You” delights @ Karamu

During the late 1920s and into the 1940s, the United States went through the great depression. Unemployment in the U. S. rose to 25%.   These were drab times and, as is the case, since the arts represent the era from which they come, the theatre of that time period represented two extremes:  heavy drama reflecting the negative mood of the nation and escapism to make people feel better by hiding from their angst-filled reality.

One of the classic plays to emerge from that era was Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s farcical “You Can’t Take It With You.” 

Farce is “a comedy that aims at entertaining the audience through situations that are highly exaggerated, extravagant, and thus improbable.”  It is also “characterized by physical humor, the use of deliberate absurdity or nonsense, and broadly stylized performances.”  It is often “set in one particular location, where all events occur.”

“You Can’t Take It With You,” which won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize, fulfills all of the descriptive farce requirements, ran 838 performances in its initial staging, was revised many times on the Great White Way, and has been staged by many educational institutes and community theatres around the world. 

The stage show was transformed into a film which won an Academy Award for Best Picture.

The script, which is as much character as plot driven, centers on the Vanderhof home in New York.  Grandpa (Greg White) decided one day to live his life by the philosophy, “don't do anything that you're not going to enjoy doing,” so he goes to circuses, commencements, throws darts, and collects stamps.  His massive home, besides being cluttered with “stuff,” becomes the haven for a number of erratic and lovable incompetents.

Grandpa didn’t like how his tax payments were being spent so he stopped making the payments.  Penny Sycamore (Anne J. McEvoy), his cheerful daughter, an on-again-on-again incompetent painter, also writes plays because one day a typewriter was mistakenly delivered to the Vanderhoff residence.  Her husband, Paul (Luther Robinson), whose hobby is playing with erector sets, manufactures fireworks in the basement, along with Mr. DePinna (Bob Abelman), a man who delivered ice to the house eight years ago and never left.

Then there is Essie (Maya Jones), Penny’s candy-making daughter and inept ballerina, and her husband Ed (Joshua McElroy), who plays the xylophone because the house has one, makes masks, and loves to create meaningless messages on his printing press, that he includes in Penny’s confectionaries that he delivers to buyers. 

The house also has visits from the likes of pseudo-dance teacher Boris Kholenkov (Chris Bizub), a wild Russian who escaped that country before the revolution and hates everything, and Duchess Olga Katrina (Sue Cohen), a cousin of the deposed Russian Czar, who now works at a Child’s restaurant and has a passion for making blintzes.

The only seemingly “normal” person in the household is Alice (Corlesia Smith), who is a secretary for a wealthy Wall Street stock broker.  She is dating Tony Kirby (Chris Richards), her boss’s son. 

One evening, which turns out to be the wrong night, the Kirbys (Lou Will and Laura Starnik) come to dinner at the Vanderhof’s to celebrate the engagement of Alice and Tony, and all hell breaks loose. 

The Vanderhof's irrepressible maid, Rheba (Jeannine Gaskin) and her wise-cracking hyper-active boyfriend, Donald (Miguel Osborne), hysterically try to make a dinner with little foodstuffs in the kitchen, with constant frenetic trips to the local A&P, while the rest of the menagerie bumbles through saying and doing all the wrong things.

Alice is humiliated. Tony finds the whole chaos amusing. His uptight parents are mortified and then totally lose it when Penny convinces them to play a word game with cues that have sexual connotations and reveal a great deal of embarrassing information about Mr. and Mrs. Kirby and their relationship.

To add to the chaos, the IRS invades because of Grandpa not paying his taxes, along with the feds because of the subversive messages Ed has put into the candy deliveries.  And, wonder of wonders, the fireworks in the basement find this the ideal time to explode, causing the entire household to be hauled off to jail.

Of course, for those who are interested in plots coming to happy endings, all works out.  Peace and harmony are restored, and Alice and Tony, it appears, will live happily ever-after.

“You Can’t Take It With You” is farce at its highest level and the Karamu production, under the direction of Fred Sternfeld, delights. 

Each cast member nicely conceives their role and the whole production, though a little languid in pace, and missing some shticks which would have enhanced the madness, works nicely.

The massive set, impressively decorated with era correct memorabilia, is well conceived by Richard H. Morris, Jr. and India Blatch-Geib’s costume designs fit the time period.

It is nice to report that Karamu, under the guidance of its new President and CEO Tony Sias, has returned to the color-blind casting stressed by Dorothy and Reuben Silver when they were producing the organization’s plays, making it once again “a joyful gathering place,” where all are welcome.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  For those who like to go to the theater to have fun, get away from their own work-a-day world of angst, “You Can’t Take It With You” is your thing.  Don’t’ expect a professional level production, most of the cast are not Equity members, but there is enough comedy, ridiculousness, and delight to make even the Grinch smile.

“You Can’t Take It With You” continues through May 7, 2017 at Simon and Rose Mandel Theatre at Cuyahoga Community College-Eastern Campus in Highland Hills where Karamu is performing as its theatre facilities are being upgraded.   For ticket information call 216-795-7077.