Written in the 1930s, George F. Kaufmann and Moss Hart’s “You Can’t Take It With You,” Sunset Playhouse’s latest offering, barely shows its age. Other than a main character pounding away on a manual typewriter, another character mentioning the fact that he’s on “relief,” as well as references to the Russian Revolution and Trotsky, the Russian Bolshevik leader, this play could take place today.
In fact, beyond all the farcical merriment about this eccentric family, there is a lot that resonates in today’s wealth-obsessed world about the classic play. Here is a family that goes about doing exactly what they want, and that includes owning snakes, making fireworks, masks and candy, writing sex plays, ballet dancing, and printing and disseminating cards with meaningless phrases.
Grandpa, at a dinner prayer, sums it up this way: “All we ask is to go along and be happy in our own special way.” When asked who in society should do the work, Grandpa defends his family’s way of life by saying, “There are always people who like to work.”
When this family meets a high-powered Wall Street businessman, whose lifestyle gives him ulcers, the contrast is startling and illuminating.
This strange household is somehow still endearing today, and Sunset’s version, under the direction of Brian Zelinski, has a fine cast from top to bottom that gives each character a distinctive quality, just as the playwrights would have wanted.
While the playwrights probably weren’t advocating not paying taxes, like Grandpa, or just doing whatever struck one’s fancy, they were saying that the pursuit of wealth and high society does not necessarily bring happiness. There is also an acceptance of all kinds of people – a quality that we are sorely bereft of today. The household contains not only family, but Mr. De Pinna, an iceman who made a delivery eight years earlier and stayed.
The play also touches on Grandpa’s suspicion of the government, certainly an issue prevalent today. When a government tax man (Michael Schottie) questions Grandpa on why he hasn’t paid taxes for 24 years, he tells him the government wouldn’t know what to do with the money.
The play covers a week in the life of this household, headed by Grandpa Martin Vanderhof (Hal Erickson) and also including Penelope and Paul Sycamore (Donna Daniels and Ralph Frattura); their daughter and son-in-law, Essie and Ed Carmichael (Elsie Garcia and Sam Kuchenreuther); another daughter, Alice (Deanna Strasse); Rheba, the housekeeper (Debbie Marx); and De Pinna (Paul Pfannenstiel). Frequent visitors are Essie’s ballet teacher, Boris Kolenkhov (Scott Korman) and Rheba’s boyfriend, Donald (Cohl Carter-Wright).
Alice, the only “normal” one in the household, works in an office. She’s head-over-heals for her boss’s son, Tony Kirby (Derrick Karas), and vice versa. When Tony comes over in the evening to take her out, Alice hustles him out before the family has an opportunity to display just how strange they are.
A week later, Tony’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Kirby (Scott Jaeger and Katie Homar), come for dinner, but they come a day early and find the family engaging in all sorts of bizarre activities. The evening is a disaster and Alice is distraught.
Alice loves her family dearly, saying, “There’s a nobility about them.” But she also realizes that, to the rest of the world, especially the man she loves and his parents, they are more than a bit odd. “Can’t we be like normal people?” she pouts.
The fine cast is headed by Erickson’s Grandpa, whose utterances are often tinged with wisdom. “Life is just kind of beautiful if you just let it come to you,” he tells Kolenkhov. As Grandpa, Erickson looks so comfortable surrounded by the chaos and exudes a contentment and even joy at the happy household surrounding him. It is Grandpa who tells the wealthy Mr. Kirby about his wealth: “You can’t take it with you.”
As Alice, Strasse wonderfully handles another pivotal part of this play. She nearly floats when talking about her true love and when she is with him, and effectively shows her exasperation at her family’s antics when the Kirbys comes to visit. As her beau Tony, Karas gives a most mature portrayal as he fights to convince Alice of his love.
I enjoyed Daniels’ portrayal of Penny, who dives into the sex and adventure plays she’s writing with gusto. The game scene with the Kirbys is great fun, as is the scene in which she paints Mr. De Pinna’s portrait. In the latter, Pfannenstiel camps it up in his toga to the delight of the audience.
Another high-energy performer is Korman’s Kolenkhov, who spits at the mention of modern-day Russia and clicks his heels at attention in a scene-stealing performance.
All roles are handled well – Marx’s maid Rheba with her aw-shucks demeanor, Kuchenreuther’s and Frattura’s child-like enthusiasm for their characters’ interests, Carter-Wright’s Donald dashing off for frankfurters and expressive comic timing.
Scenic designer Nick Korneski provided a fine setting for the wacky family to romp, while props mistress Susan Zuern helped define the home’s inhabitants with dozens of eclectic items that filled every surface, adding to the sense of serendipity this family enjoys. As Alice says, “My mother writes because eight years ago a typewriter was delivered here by mistake.”
If you go
Who: Sunset Playhouse
What: “You Can’t Take It With You”
When: Through Feb. 4
Where: 800 Elm Grove Road, Elm Grove