Friday, February 19, 2010

Understated insanity swirls in Lakewood Playhouse comedy

More believable characters: Even after 74 years, comedy remains relevant and hilarious

Published in The News Tribune, Feb. 19, 2010

The Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy “You Can’t Take it With You” by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart has been sending audiences into paroxysms of laughter since it opened on Broadway in 1936.

It remains as relevant and as funny today as it was 74 years ago – its continued success a tribute to the writing talent of Kaufman and Hart.

The carefully constructed story line, which has served as a model for many of today’s situation comedies, has a wild assortment of kooks and eccentrics, denizens of the Venderhof/Sycamore household, living the kind of lives most of us wish we could live. Their message to us through the years has been a simple and universal one: Live life to the fullest without regard for riches because you can’t take it with you when you die.

This is the third time in three years I’ve reviewed this play. In the first two productions, the outsized characters were played almost as parodies of themselves with overly broad gestures and exaggerated quirks.

At Lakewood Playhouse, under the direction of James Venturini, their eccentricities are slightly underplayed. Rather than presenting the audience with crazy people doing crazy things, Venturini and cast let us see people we can relate to doing crazy things, which I suspect is what Kaufman and Hart had in mind.

Jane McKittrick plays Penny Sycamore as a very normal mother and wife who just happens to have been writing unfinished plays for eight years – because a typewriter was accidentally delivered to their house. Michael Griswold plays Grandpa with the shuffling walk and slight tremor of an old man, but does not exaggerate his twitches and quirks. His eccentricities lie in what he does (collecting snakes, going to commencement exercises, and foiling the IRS), not in the way he acts. And he is absolutely believable.

The only actors who play their roles in a more comedic/slapstick fashion are Michael Dresdner as the Russian ballet teacher Boris Kolenkhov and Nicole Lockett, who is masterful in the duel roles of Gay Wellington, a sexy but over-the-hill alcoholic actress, and Olga Katrina, a grand duchess before the Russian Revolution now working as a waitress. Seldom have I seen anyone play drunk so well or combine haughtiness and modesty so convincingly. As for Dresdner, as the imperious dance instructor, he always is himself – charming and blustery and lovable – no matter what character he is playing.

As the loving and relatively normal couple around whom all of the insanity swirls, Joe Kelly and Kat Christensen play the young lovers Tony and Alice as down-to-earth and self-controlled but real and fallible people. Christensen, a 17-year-old student at Tacoma School of the Arts, has been outstanding in a number of performances at Lakewood Playhouse, most recently as Becky Thatcher in “Tom Sawyer.” She makes the audience fall in love with Alice Sycamore. It’s hard to believe she’s only 17. Kelly plays Tony as a young man with intense passion and determination.

One other actor deserving of special attention is Jack House as Donald. His is a small throwaway role, but House makes Donald sparkle.

The one regrettable bit of casting is Katy Shockman as Essie Carmichael. She’s a talented actor. I loved her as a witch in “Macbeth” and as Shelby in “Steel Magnolias.” But she’s not right for Essie. Essie is an incompetent dancer. To dance badly and make it hilarious, as it should be, requires an excellent and athletic dancer. Shockman approaches her dance moves with the tentative stances of someone who has never taken a lesson, and it just doesn’t work.

Another thing that doesn’t work is the end of act two, which literally goes out with an explosion of fireworks but metaphorically fizzles while actors freeze in place and special effects fireworks go off for way too long.

Finally, accolades must go to the director and set designer Venturini for doing an excellent job at both. His set is warm and welcoming. The collection of artifacts, photos, musical instruments and other assorted objects that hang on the wall of the Sycamore house, including a boxing glove and a scythe, is as odd as the people who live there. And his ability to keep so many people on stage without falling into sheer chaos is laudable.

“You Can’t Take it With You” is a three-act play with one 15-minute intermission and one 10-minute “stretch break.” It runs about two hours and 20 minutes.

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through Feb. 28
Where: Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd., Lakewood
Tickets: $13.50-$21.50
Information: 253-588-0042,

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