Archive for September, 2010

You Can’t Take It With You

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

September 23, 2010

You Can’t Take It With You, the classic American comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, is currently being brought to glorious life at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

It was fun staying after for the post-show discussion with the cast, and some really good points were raised there about this show’s role in the evolution of American “sitcom” humor.  It does kind of remind me of old-style sitcoms in a way, particularly with some of the physical comedy and joke-a-minute humor.  Another point that was raised was that, while a lot of modern sitcoms seem to be about dysfunctional families, the family portrayed here is very functional despite being unconventional.  Everyone loves and accepts each other, encouraging each other to chase their dreams and do what they love rather than pursuing a career for the sake of money or status.

The family centers around patriarch Martin Vanderhof (Joneal Joplin), who is called Grandpa by pretty much everyone.  Grandpa is a gentle but commanding presence in the middle of his unorthodox family, which includes wannabe playwright Penny (Carol Schultz), her fireworks-happy husband Paul (Tony Campisi) and their daughters–the free-spirit would-be dancer Essie (Stephanie Cozart), and the more seemingly “normal” Alice (Amelia McClain).  It is when Alice starts seeing Tony (Benjamin Eakely), the son of her wealthy boss, that complications arise in spectacular fashion.

The players in this production, ably directed by Steven Woolf, all work together and form a tight, cohesive ensemble.  The chemistry between all the actors is palpable, as the comic energy is built in how the characters play off of each other.  I especially liked the chemistry between Cozart as Essie and Jamie LaVerdiere as her sweetly goofy musician/printer husband, Ed.  Also, McClain and Eakeley made a charming pair as well–convincingly portraying the excitement of young love.  McClain also did a fine job of imbuing the character of Alice with enough neurotic energy to make it believable that she, despite being the most conventional of her clan, actually belongs in this family.  There are also some nice turns by Susie Wall as the drunken actress Gay Wellington, and by Jeffrey Hayenga and Barbara Kingsley as Mr. and Mrs. Kirby, Tony’s bewildered upper-crust parents.  Kingsley is also to be singled out for her fine dual portrayal of both Mrs. Kirby and exiled Russian Grand Duchess Olga Katrina, and St. Louis veteran actor Joplin is a solid anchor to the production as Grandpa.

This play was written in the late 1930s and is so tied to its time that it can only really be played today as a period piece, and the period elements of this production are excellently done.  The elaborate, beautifully decorated set by John Ezell and the costumes by Elizabeth Covey (Grand Duchess Olga’s outfit, in particular, is a whimsical work of art) add to the the 1930s flavor of the show, as do the occasional moments of 1930s music that are played throughout the production.  Never having experienced this time period first-hand, I was nevertheless made to feel like I had been there.

Still, despite the vivid recreation of time and place, the show does not feel dated.  Many of the play’s themes–such as conventionality vs. unconventionality, government intervention in people’s private lives, and struggles to get along despite differences in economic status, politics, and overall outlook on life, as well as the tension between following one’s dreams vs. doing one’s “duty for society”–still resonate today.  Also, the portrayals are so rich and vibrant that it feels like a family like this could actually exist, and just like so many of their guests who visit once and decide to stay, I felt like I wanted to spend more time with this wonderfully strange, loving and accepting family.

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