April 22, 2005
The Geffen serves up a warm but bland staging of Kaufman and Hart's vintage comedy 'You Can't Take It With You.'
by Rob Kendt
Special to The Times
Eccentricity is relative, depending on where you place the center. Even in our current neoconservative age, it's safe to say that the goalposts for American oddity are a bit further afield than they were in 1936, when Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's "You Can't Take It With You" first introduced that quaint bohemian clan the Sycamores, and their unflappable grand- patriarch Martin Vanderhof.
This gaggle of creative dilettantes and amateur freethinkers—who somehow maintain a spacious New York household, complete with live-in cook, entirely on collective goodwill and assorted real estate holdings—wouldn't survive the first round of auditions for "The Surreal Life."
Mom (Lisa Richards) types vaguely scandalous plays; Dad (Ethan Phillips) makes fireworks in the basement with an errant iceman (Tony Abatemarco); and daughter Essie (Dagney Kerr) does a nonstop interpretive dance around the house, often accompanied by husband Ed (Michael Loeffelholz) on xylophone.
Meanwhile the house's cook (Carla Renata) regularly hosts her unemployed boyfriend (Darryl Alan Reed); Essie's boisterous Russian dance teacher (Michael Laskin) conveniently drops in to give his lessons around dinnertime; and Grandpa Vanderhof (Roy Dotrice), the household's dropout philosopher-king, sits in approving judgment, rising occasionally to toss a dart or get a bit of air. Oh, and did I mention the snakes?
With the right stylization and performative snap, such mild peculiarities might add up to the sort of propriety-tweaking chaos that plagues the Sycamores' more strait-laced daughter, Alice (Alexandra James), who fears that her well-born fiance (Chris L. McKenna) will run for the hills at the mere sight of the house.
But as directed by Christopher Hart, son of one of the playwrights, the Geffen's even-tempered new revival has more warmth than heat and more shrugs than laughs. We can measure the production's style gap early on when an IRS man (Jeff Marlow) bumbles in briefly, fuming and befuddled, to demand back taxes from the recalcitrant patriarch. With his tightly wound posture and sputtering delivery, this easily shaken functionary seems infinitely stranger than anyone else onstage.
It's a reversal that's in line with the spirit of Kaufman and Hart's play, with its gentle suggestion that the real crazies are outside running the rat race, and that true sanity resides in the beatitude of this familial commune. "Life is kind of simple if you just relax," says old Vanderhof, in one of his homespun homilies.
But it's a point we shouldn't grant so easily—not if we're supposed to care a whit about the objections of Alice, or of her fiance's parents (Christina Pickles, Conrad John Schuck), to the young couple's compatibility.
The production provides glimmers of the screwball free-for-all it might have been whenever Magda Harout is onstage. First as an incomprehensibly blowzy drunk, then as a former Russian duchess reduced in social rank but not in hauteur, Harout has broad comic marks to hit, and she nails them nicely. It may seem easy to milk comic mileage from a line like "Don't be stingy with your blintzes," or from a costume (by Jean-Pierre Dorleac) that suggests an explosion at a Fuller Brush factory.
But few of Harout's fellow performers, given similar opportunities to shine, deliver the same comic bang. The hopelessly untalented homebound couple, Ed and Essie, seem more sad than funny here, while Abatemarco, as Mr. Sycamore's purportedly colorful partner in incendiaries, mostly wanders about looking puzzled. When the fiance's buttoned-up upper-crust parents arrive to survey this motley scene, their look is less one of shock than pity.
The key to the production's ho-hum tone is Dotrice, an experienced hand with not a trace of ham in him. His nonchalance, alas, seems to have leaked into the production as a whole. While Vanderhof is a living model of the virtues of chilling out, how can he be the eye of a storm when there's no storm?
'You Can't Take It With You'
Where: Geffen Playhouse at the Brentwood Theatre, 1301 Wilshire Blvd., Building 211, West L.A.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 4 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Ends: May 22
Price: $38 to $52
Contact: (310) 208-5454
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Lisa Richards...Penelope Sycamore
Ethan Phillips...Paul Sycamore
Tony Abatemarco...Mr. De Pinna
Darryl Alan Reed...Donald
Roy Dotrice...Martin Vanderhof
Chris L. McKenna...Tony Kerby
Michael Laskin...Boris Kolenkhov
Magda Harout...Gay Wellington, Olga
Conrad John Schuck...Mr. Kirby
Christina Pickles...Mrs. Kirby
By George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Directed by Christopher Hart. Sets by Gary Randall. Costumes by Jean-Pierre Dorleac. Lighting by Craig A. Pierce. Sound by Jonathan Burke. Production stage manager Jill Gold.
PHOTO: BETROTHED: Chris L. McKenna, left, and Alexandra James in George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's "You Can't Take It With You,"produced by the Geffen Playhouse at the Brentwood Theatre.
PHOTOGRAPHER: Lawrence K. Ho Los Angeles Times
PHOTO: (E1) Roy Dotrice stars in George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart comedy.
PHOTOGRAPHER: Lawrence K. Ho Los Angeles Times
Edition: Home Edition
Index Terms: Play Review
Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times
Record Number: 000022409
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THEATER REVIEWThere's not enough to 'It'The Geffen serves up a warm but bland staging of Kaufman and Hart's vintage comedy 'You Can't Take It With You.'
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