“You Can’t Take It With You” declares itself in a stage direction: “This is a house where you do as you like, and no questions asked.” That license to live the carefree life of children at play, extended by this 1936 comedy classic by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, appealed to a nation sunk in the Great Depression. But for a modern audience paranoid about “entitlements,” not so much. That’s one excuse, anyway, for this curiously inert revival helmed by Scott Ellis. Toplined by the great James Earl Jones and Rose Byrne, a perfectly swell cast can’t convince us that they’re having fun living the life of social parasites.
Taken individually, the 19 performances in this smartly cast revival range from professional to enchanting. The Big Daddy of charm is Jones, the center of his domestic universe as Grandpa Martin Vanderhof, who left the workforce to follow his bliss and (despite collecting rent from his various properties) hasn’t paid any income taxes for 24 years. The other irresistible life force in this bohemian household is Kristine Nielsen (trailing clouds of glory from “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”) as Grandpa’s dotty daughter, Penelope, who gleefully took up playwriting after a typewriter was mistakenly delivered to their door.
The other free spirits in this zany household include Penelope’s husband, Paul Sycamore (Mark Lynn-Baker, always on target), who manufactures fireworks in the basement, and their endearingly vapid daughter, Essie (cute and canny Annaleigh Ashford), who is constantly en pointe, in pursuit of a hopeless dream to become a ballerina.
And then there are the casual visitors, like Elizabeth Ashley, a visual joy as the exiled Grand Duchess Olga Katrina, who patiently waits tables at Child’s in anticipation of the restoration of the Russian monarchy. And a dipsomaniac actress named Gay Wellington and played by Julie Halston, who makes a brilliant comic turn of simply climbing a staircase while reciting a dirty limerick.
The only person who can’t bring herself to swallow the house Kool-Aid is Alice Sycamore, the smart and sensible granddaughter played with disarming delicacy by Byrne (who went the distance in “Damages”). Alice loves her family to bits and respects their dedication to the simple joys of an irresponsible life. (“There’s a kind of nobility about them,” she says.)
But like other characters who maintain a grip on reality in madcap households (see “The Addams Family” and “La Cage aux Folles”), Alice can’t share their delusions. And when the stuffed-shirt parents of her rich fiancé come to visit, in the perfectly prim persons of Byron Jennings and Johanna Day (who have been playing characters like this since dinosaurs roamed the earth), she knows exactly what to expect — chaos.
To accommodate the chaos, David Rockwell (“Kinky Boots”) has designed an outlandish funhouse of a set, stuffed with wonders like the frightful primitive masks that stare out from the walls and the terrarium of live snakes that greets visitors at the front door. Jane Greenwood has come up with a fine range of period-appropriate costumes, from a fetching Alice Blue Gown for lovely Byrne to a flamboyant show-stopper for Ashley. And when fireworks are called for, designers Donald Holder (lighting) and Jon Weston (sound) are happy to oblige with proper effects.
But when all is said and done and gone up in the pretty smoke of “beautiful Red Fire,” the solid performances and flashy effects fail to come together as a coherent ensemble piece. According to one piece of wisdom from Kaufman and Hart, “life’s pretty simple, if you just relax.” But that sense of effortless teamwork is exactly what’s missing from this hard-driving but scattershot production. Everybody’s working hard — too hard — to stay in sync. And even when they do manage to synchronize their comic rhythms and land on the same square, their characters don’t connect. Which means that the jokes don’t land.
And what about those jokes about outsmarting the government and leaving your civic responsibilities to people who just aren’t clever enough to realize that true happiness lies in following your bliss? Not even Jones can make a convincing case for the infantile morality of this Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Given the prevailing political climate, some of the jokes feel forced at best, and, at their worst, heartless. Nowadays, the American obsession with enjoying complete personal freedom — at the expense of all those sad sacks working on their behalf — just doesn’t hit the funny bone.