The Chautauqua Theater Company, on the grounds of the historic gated community, the Chautauqua Institution, best described as an intellectual amusement park, opened its 2010 theater season on July 15 with the 1936 Pulitzer Prize winning You Can’t Take It With You by George S. Kaufman and Moses Hart.
It’s a madcap comedy featuring on-stage explosions that startled several of the opening night audience (I counted the fire exits after the first firecracker went off), and a frenzied police raid interrupting the general domestic mayhem occurring in the living room of the eccentric Sycamore family, a group of New York City oddballs who defy conventions of society and march to the beat of a different drum, or as is the case here, xylophone.
The Sycamores are a family free of strife, politically independent with a healthy distrust of government. The patriarch of the clan, grandfather Martin Vanderhof (veteran actor Stuart Margolin), refuses to pay income tax (doesn’t believe in it), and their home serves as a halfway house for idle and earnest dreamers. They lull their active days away in urban utopia with fanciful endeavors.
Penelope Sycamore (Kristine Nielsen) is a playwright of eleven apparently unpublished plays boasting thematic titles like The War Play, The Religious Play, and The Sex Play. Her husband Paul (Matt Bradford Sullivan) wants nothing more than to perfect recreational fireworks, hence the explosions and billowing smoke coming from the basement door.
Son-in-law Ed (Brendan Titley) plays classical compositions on xylophone and accidentally publishes anti-government propaganda. His wife Essie (Julia Ogilvie) struggles valiantly to be a ballerina, leaping and bounding across the stage with all the grace of a balled and chained kangaroo. They are a decidedly wacky bunch.
Conflict arises when the normal and lovely daughter Alice (Rachel Mewbron), the oddball Munster, becomes engaged to her upper-class and wealthy boss, Tony Kirby (Charlie Thurston), whose family tree is as far away from the Sycamores as an oak is to a chia pet. The young couple arrange for the in-laws to meet at a dinner in the Sycamore home.
As situation comedy will dictate, the stuffy Wall Street devoted in-laws (Stephen Pelinski and Carol Halstead), in full evening dress, arrive for dinner at the Sycamore home on the wrong night. For the Sycamores it’s just another evening at home with bombs exploding and assorted lunatics running amok.
Overwhelmingly, the production is a jewel, helped mightily by Kristine Nielsen’s delightfully zany portrayal of Penelope Sycamore, a character that hints at a genuine bipolar disorder when delivered by lesser actresses. Nielsen projects a joy for life with a scatterbrained, hurried pace and delivery. She lays the groundwork for the over-the-top lunacy around her.
I loved Julia Ogilvie’s bizarre attempts at ballet throughout the play. She spends most of her onstage time high on tippy toes and flutters in and out the door like a confused but trained gust of wind. The actress is clearly disguising an expert dance talent.
Carol Halstead, in the dual role of Mrs. Kirby and the visiting Russian countess, Olga, is superb as the stone-faced Kirby and exceptionally so as the exiled countess. Her thick, exaggerated yet perfect Russian accent is a tickle to the ear, and her towering, slighted persona as the once Russian royal crowns this already colorful production in the third act.
Opening night jitters were apparent. A tall standing floor lamp fell over and members of the ensemble nearly halted proceedings to re-erect it, as if they were emergency responders to the fallen lamp. There was a tendency from the actors to project boldly into the audience as if attempting to engage us further. Need they be told their chemistry is engaging enough?
I don’t know why You Can’t Take It With You won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1936. It’s highly entertaining but still an elaborate bit of fluff. The lazy anti-government platform must have spoken clearly to the Depression-era audience who made it a colossal hit on Broadway. Today, in the care of this ensemble, it’s a testament to the staying power of a tight and funny script. It’s a rollicking night of good theater.
You Can’t Take It With You plays through July 25 at The Chautauqua Institution in beautiful Chautauqua, New York.