Monday, July 19, 2010

Theatre Review: YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU, The Chautauqua Theatre Company

The Chautauqua Theatre Company, on the grounds of the historic gated community of The Chautauqua Institution, best described as an intellectual amusement park, with lecture halls. libraries and an opera house, opened its 2010 theatre season on July 15 with the 1936 Pulitzer Prize winning YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU, by George S. Kaufman and Moses Hart.

It's a madcap comedy featuring on-stage explosions that startled several of the opening night audience, ( I was counting the fire exits after the first firecracker went off ), and a frenzied police raid interrupting the general domestic mayhem occurring in the living room of the eccentric Sycamore family, a group of New York City oddballs who defy conventions of society and march to the beat of a different drum, or as is the case here, xylophone.

The Sycamores are a family free of strife, politically independent with a healthy distrust of government that leans towards a moderate socialist stance, a fashionable notion in Depression-era 1936. The patriarch of the clan, Martin Vanderhoff ( veteran actor Stuart Margolin ), refuses to pay income tax (doesn't believe in it ), and their home serves as a halfway house for idle and earnest dreamers. They lull their active days away in urban utopia with fanciful endeavors.

Penelope Sycamore (Kristine Neilsen ) is a playwright of eleven apparently unpublished plays boasting thematic titles like The War Play, The Religious Play, and The Sex Play. She became a playwright only because a typewriter was mistakenly delivered to the door. We are never certain of her play-writing abilities and she soon returns to another passion - painting Olympic decathlon discus throwers.

Her husband Paul ( Michael Bradford Sullivan ) wants nothing more than to perfect recreational fireworks, hence the explosions and billowing smoke coming from the basement door. Son-in-law Ed ( Brendan Titley ) plays classical compositions on xylophone when he is not accidentally publishing anti-government propaganda on his living room printing press. His wife Essie (Julia Ogilvie ) struggles valiantly to be a ballerina, with eight years lessons under her belt she leaps and bounds across the stage with all the grace of a balled and chained kangaroo. They are a decidedly wacky bunch.

The centerpiece of the elaborate and gorgeous living room set design by Lee Savage, is an aquatic tank of pet snakes. The snakes serve as a springboard for several sight gags.

Conflict arises when the normal and lovely daughter Alice ( Rachel Mewbron ), the oddball Munster, becomes engaged to her upper-class and wealthy boss, Tony Kirby ( Charlie Thurston ) whose family tree is as far away from the Sycamores as an oak is to a chia pet. The young couple arrange for the in-laws to meet at a dinner at the Sycamore home.

As situation comedy will dictate, the stuffy Wall Street devoted in-laws, in full dinner dress, arrive at the Sycamore home on the wrong night. For the Sycamores it's just another evening at home with bombs exploding and assorted lunatics running amok. It's a beautifully executed scene of comedic timing.

Overwhelmingly, the production is a jewel, helped mightily by Kristine Nielsen's delightfully zany portrayal of Penelope Sycamore, a character that hints at a genuine bipolar disorder when delivered by lesser actresses. Nielsen projects a joy for life with a scatterbrained, hurried pace and delivery as if she expects to uncover an escaped snake at every turn. She remains accessibly sane within the framework of her nuttiness and lays the groundwork for the over-the-top lunacy around her.

I loved Julia Ogilvie's bizarre attempts at ballet throughout the play. She spends most of her time high on tippy toes and flutters in and out the door like a confused but trained gust of wind. She is a constant comedic marvel and is clearly disguising an expert dance talent.

Carol Halstead, in the dual role of Mrs. Kirby and the visiting Russian countess, Olga, is superb as the stone-faced Kirby, and exceptionally so as the exiled countess. Her thick exaggerated yet perfect Russian accent is a tickle to the ear and her towering slighted persona as the once Russian royal forced to work for tips in a New York City restaurant, crowns this already colorful production in the third act.

Opening night jitters were apparent. There was a few jumped and dropped lines and the recovery was none too swift. A tall standing floor lamp fell over and members of the ensemble nearly halted proceedings to re-erect it, as if they were emergency responders to the fallen lamp. There was a tendency from the actors to project boldly into the audience as if attempting to engage us further. Need they be told their chemistry is engaging enough?

I don't know why YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1936. It's highly entertaining but still an elaborate bit of fluff. The lazy anti-government platform must have spoken clearly to the Depression-era audience who made it a colossal hit on Broadway. Today, in the care of this ensemble, it's a testament to the staying power of a tight and funny script. It's a rollicking night of good theater.

YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU plays through July 25 at The Chautauqua Institution in beautiful Chautauqua, New York.

this review was first published at

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