The T. Schreiber Studio's charming production of You Can't Take it With You brings us directly into the living room of a family who loves each other but can't seem to stop themselves from accidentally mortifying each other, getting one another arrested or nearly burning their house down. In other words, the kind of family one would hesitate to bring a significant other home to meet, rather than the other way around.
Reviewed by Ilena George
Before Meet the Parents’ Fockers and My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s Portokalos family, there were the Sycamores in Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's You Can't Take it With You. The Sycamores are a deliriously eccentric family whose young daughter, Alice (Jacqueline van Biene), tries to keep a close rein on her family’s brand of free-ranging quirkiness when she brings her fiancé, Wall Street heir Anthony Kirby Junior (Jushua Sienkiewicz), and his parents home to meet her family for the first time. Only the stuffy Kirbys could resist the charms of the dozen people living under the Sycamores’ roof and the T. Schreiber Studio’s production of the classic play makes the Sycamore family innocent and endearing rather than frivolous and vapid.
From candy making to fireworks manufacturing, the Sycamores collect hobbies, most of which they do not excel in (to put it mildly). Mrs. Sycamore (Margot Bercy) starts but never finishes melodramatic plays while her husband Paul (Jerry Rago) builds fireworks in the basement and their adult daughter, Essie Carmichael (Jamie Neuman), has spent eight years trying to learn to pirouette from an overly enthusiastic Russian ex-pat who enjoys wrestling strangers to the ground. When not adding to their hobby collection, the family accumulates unplanned long-term residents, such as the milkman and the ice deliveryman, who show up one day and stay for years. The man behind the curtain of all this benign madness is the Sycamores’ patriarch and resident philosopher Martin Vanderhof (Peter Judd), whose personal philosophy is that everyone should pursue what makes them happy and not spend their life toiling away at work they despise.
Grandpa’s follow-your-heart message is not a subtle one, but what the character and the play as a whole lack in subtlety this production makes up for in kindheartedness. Judd’s performance lends sincerity and gravity to Grandpa, just as van Biene’s Alice is alive with the enthusiasm and innocence that lets her get away with overly naïve lines like, “Is there much rice in China?” Nearly all the adults display this childlike innocence, and the best moments come from their sweet quirks. Mrs. Sycamore, suffering from writers’ block, says, “I've sort of got myself in a monastery and I can't get out,” to which Essie replies, “It'll come to you, Mother, remember how you got out of that brothel.” There are moments when all the zaniness spills over into slapstick territory, particularly once the Kirbys show up, but they are mercifully few.
T. Schreiber Studio’s intimate theater makes the audience part of the family, bringing us right into the Sycamores’ tastefully, if erratically, furnished living room, designed by Ryan Scott. At times this up-close view may be a little too intimate: it is easy to see where the production cut some corners. But it also affords us a look of where they didn't scrimp: the simple but elegant costumes designed by Summer Lee Jack effectively capture both the time and the characters.
Elaborate and enthusiastically performed choreography set to period music covers the transition between some scenes; although the play’s characters are still fresh, more directorial additions such as this could have helped compensate for the many outdated jokes and references that do not have the same longevity. But while references to Childs or Schraft’s restaurants no longer resonate the way they once did, Grandpa would agree that a few hours in great company is something you can take with you.
You Can't Take It With You by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman
Directed by Peter Jensen
May 24th through June 24th, Thurs-Sat at 8 pm, Sun at 3 pm
T. Schreiber Studio, 151 W. 26th Street, 7th Floor
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.