A DELECTABLE CHESTNUT
Kaufman & Hart’s You Can’t Take it With You has earned its place in the American canon as a great American chestnut, one of those charming, heartfelt comedies from the first half of the 20th century. You Can’t Take it With You is such a lovely and funny play that it has become standard fare for every kind of theatrical venue from Broadway revivals to high school productions. Because its screwball comedy style demands a cast of actors with great training, productions usually range from professionally competent to hopelessly amateur. It is rare that a production seamlessly gets under the authentic style of the show, has fully realized characters, and transports its audience back to the more innocent 1930’s. The Antaeus Company’s production, adroitly directed by Gigi Bermingham, does just that and more. Bermingham helms a top-notch cast to demonstrate exactly why this delightful play has endured for almost 80 years.
Alice Sycamore is in love with Tony Kirby, the boss’s son. The only thing that stands in the way of their happiness is Alice’s extremely eccentric family, bohemian to a fault, and perhaps a little mentally ill by today’s standards. Grandpa is in arrears on his taxes, Mother Penny is writing an oeuvre of plays only because a typewriter was delivered to their house by mistake, Sister Essie is an awful dancer but perseveres nevertheless, and Papa Sycamore is in the basement with a suspected anarchist making explosives. It’s all harmless fun, unless, of course, you’re trying to convince a Wall Street tycoon and his wife that your families should be joined in matrimony. Because Kaufman & Hart were at the peak of their powers when they wrote the play, everyone gets a balanced storyline, the stakes are orchestrated to perfection, wisdom lines are gracefully placed, while the heart of the play never stops beating around getting Alice and Tony to the altar. One of Bermingham’s savvy choices was to transform the play from three acts to two, with an act break superior to the original text.
Another excellent choice on Bermingham’s part was the casting. The Antaeus Company is a cooperative ensemble founded to empower the actor. They exist to create a family of artists – no doubt, similar to some of the characters in You Can’t Take it With You. Their shows are always “partner cast,” aka double-cast, to give their actors the wiggle room to take more lucrative gigs should they arise. I saw “the Sycamore cast” on opening night. There is also “the Kirby cast” and “the Vandehof cast,” depending on the night you attend. The Sycamore cast was uniformly excellent with several standouts. Eve Gordon as playwright/painter Penny Sycamore is an absolute delight as Alice’s mother, creating third-rate scenarios before eyes, when she isn’t trying – with equal lack of success – to be a supportive mother. Amelia White does double duty as a very cool, droll, and funny Mrs. Kirby and a very warm, Russian-accented Grand Duchess. Veralyn Jones has the trickiest assignment, yet she turns the nondescript role of domestic Rheba into an intrinsic member of the Sycamore family. But it is Nicholas D’Agosto as Tony Kirby who is the revelation of the evening. D’Agosto’s strong jaw and good looks are worthy of an Arrow Shirt ad. In addition, his Tony is a perfect blend of passionate love for Alice and compassionate love for her crazy family. D’Agosto has an undeniable star quality that lights up the stage from his first entrance while never betraying the ensemble world of the play.
Bermingham also works splendidly with her design team. A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s costumes are appropriately period without drawing attention to themselves. Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting and John Gardner’s sound faithfully serve the Kaufman & Hart text and Bermingham’s world. And Tom Buderwitz’ scenic design is a brilliant use of the tiny Deaf West Theatre in NoHo. Buderwitz and Bermingham have created a world that feels cozy, while, at the same time, scenes flow as fast as the Kaufman & Hart pace dictates. You Can’t Take it With You takes place in a charming world where true love is destiny; the design team never allows the audience to lose sight of this.
Something deeper is at work in Gigi Birmingham’s lovely production of Kaufman & Hart’s You Can’t Take it With You. The basic goodness of the American spirit and humanity in general is also onstage in her production. She clearly loves and admires both the individual and the gumption that makes this country so rich and wonderful. In this political season when toxic snark and insincere spin are the norm, The Antaeus Company production of You Can’t Take it With You is pure tonic.
photos by Geoffrey Wade
You Can’t Take It With You
The Antaeus Company at Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood
scheduled to end on December 9. 2012
for tickets, visit http://www.antaeus.org/tickets.html