Saturday, March 3, 2007

1936 comedy stands the test of time

Published in The News Tribune, March 2, 2007

Few plays can match the longevity of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s “You Can’t Take it With You,” which premiered on Broadway in 1936 and has been playing the college and community theater circuits for 70 years. Surprisingly, it doesn’t seem at all dated. All right, such things as mentioning a $3,000-per-year salary may date it somewhat, but the themes are universal and the enjoyment of observing the antics of the whacky Vanderhof/Sycamore family should never go out of style.

The performance at South Puget Sound Community College is ably done by a mixture of student actors and seasoned community theater actors under the direction of Ron Welch -- twin brother to SPSCC theater professor Don Welch and an accomplished professional with acting and directing credits on Broadway and network television.

The acting, for the most part, is purposefully stilted, with the characters coming across as parodies of themselves. Michael Althauser, for example, is a young man playing the decrepit grandfather, Martin Vanderhof, without the use of ageing makeup but with an exaggerated limp and shake, and the too-loud voice of a deaf man. Scott Benson as the proud Russian immigrant, Boris Kolenkhov, towers over everyone else and speaks with a rolling thunder voice. And Ingrid Pharris as Essie Carmichael the clumsy ballet wannabe lurches about stage like a drunken elf trying to dance (it takes a good dancer to lampoon bad dancing so well).

The entire play takes place in the home of Grandpa Vanderhof. It is a very lavish New York apartment with an elegant staircase, plush furniture, a xylophone and a small printing press in the living room, collections of African and Japanese masks, stuffed deer heads and snowshoes on the walls, an aquarium with a pet snake in it. (The set designed by Jerry H. Berebitsky is simultaneously comforting and exotic, with warm colors and elaborate attention to details.)

The family is a little bit crazy. Grandpa, who walked out on a lucrative career many years earlier, collects snakes and spends his time going to college commencement exercises. Essie, a candy maker who studies ballet with the Russian Kolenkhov, never stops dancing. Her husband, Ed (Nolan Otto, an SPSCC student via Olympia High School’s Running Start program) plays the xylophone and is obsessed with his printing press. Penny Sycamore (Karen Johnson) is an aspiring playwright who never finishes any of the plays she’s been working on for eight years, beginning when a typewriter was delivered to her home by mistake. Mr. Sycamore (John Baughman) makes fireworks in the basement with his assistant, Mr. De Pinna (Jessie Ruiz). The most “normal” person in the family is the daughter, Alice (Amber Blevins), who works in an office and who loves her family but is embarrassed by their eccentricities.

Alice falls in love with the boss’s son, Tony (Alex Rivera in his first acting gig). They invite Tony’s parents to dinner at the Vanderhof house with expected results. The uptight Kirby’s (Wayne Messer as Mr. Kirby and Hannah Baker, who doubles as the maid, Rheba, as Mrs. Kirby) are horrified by the eccentricities of Alice’s family, but it is very clear to the audience -- as well as to Tony -- that these apparently crazy people are happier and more well adjusted than the so-called normal Kirbys. Of course, things go awry at the dinner party. Penny initiates a parlor game that leads to marital strife between the Kirbys, fireworks explode in the basement, and federal agents descend on the house and arrest everyone.

It is a fast-paced play that runs about two-and-a-half hours with two intermissions. It reaches its height of hilarity at the end of Act II, then becomes more serious in Act II, culminating with a speech by Grandpa Vanderhof that, while still brimming with wisdom, is probably not as profound as it was 70 years ago. On the other hand, if I could see this play with the eyes and ears of a 20-year-old, I might be surprised at how profound its lessons are.

WHEN: 8 p.m. tonight March 2-3, and 2 p.m. March 4
WHERE: South Puget Sound Community College Center for the Arts
TICKETS: $10 general admission and $5 for students, staff and seniors, tickets available on the Web at
INFORMATION: 360-596-5501

1 comment:

Bev Sykes said...

I've always loved "You Can't Take it With You." It reminds me so much of our family!

Give my love to G and a happy BD to you too.