The noisy, smoky eruption of fireworks in act two says something about the low energy level of “You Can’t Take It With You” at the Brentwood Theater: There’s no genuine excitement. The 1930s screwball formula — that scatterbrained oddballs really know how to live, and sensible workers of the world are sick and miserable — is followed closely, yet Kaufman and Hart’s lovable eccentrics don’t offer any madcap joy in this stodgy version, and the pivotal love story is flavorless. It’s a play that needs major rethinking to connect with modern theatergoers.
A 1937 Pulitzer Prize winner and the basis for a 1938 best picture Oscar winner, “You Can’t Take It With You” features a goofy group of protagonists that may have seemed outrageous when conceived but look tame in today’s no-holds-barred climate. These include Martin Vanderhof (Tony winner Roy Dotrice), referred to as Grandpa, a dapper senior citizen who hasn’t worked in 35 years and refuses to pay income tax. Grandpa tosses darts, collects stamps and dispenses words of wisdom while his daughter Penelope (Lisa Richards) writes silly plays and granddaughter Essie (Dagney Kerr) studies ballet and whirls with comically klutzy abandon around the stage.
Christopher Hart’s direction is stately and methodical, except for a lively sequence in which Penelope proposes a game requiring her guests to take words and free-associate. In general, however, Hart’s ensemble doesn’t have the manic high style needed for this material. They play at acting weird and off the wall, without attaining wildness.
Punchlines that have always worked, on stage and screen, wobble or wither away. Even the visuals — Penelope painting Mr. De Pinna (Tony Abatemarco), while he poses as a discus thrower, for example — register faintly and seem to fade before our eyes.
It’s a good thing that Dotrice’s Grandpa has an air of intelligence and dignity, because the other members of his household are one-note, even by the standards of this genre. There’s Ed (Michael Loeffelholz), Essie’s husband, who sells candy and dabbles on the xylophone, and son-in-law Paul (Ethan Phillips), who loves toy ships and manufactures fireworks in the basement with his friend De Pinna. Penelope’s daughter Alice (Alexandra James), the only normal character in the clan, has fallen in love with her bosses’ son, Tony (Chris L. McKenna), and wants her family to invite Mr. and Mrs. Kirby (Conrad John Schuck and Christina Pickles), Tony’s rich, straitlaced parents, to dinner. Even as she begs them to make a good impression, it’s clear that they’ll make appalling gaffes and the snobbish Kirbys will be horrified.
Jeff Marlow, portraying an angry tax collector with frenzied conviction, appears to be single-handedly slugging it out with the subdued atmosphere.
Alice is ingenue-pretty and attractively dressed by Jean-Pierre Dorleac, but she’s a sweetly passive character, and James isn’t a strong enough actress to fill in the emotional blanks. Considering her family, it’s hard to give credibility to such lines as “there’s a kind of nobility about them,” and we never particularly care if she gets together with Tony at the end.
McKenna is more fortunate, because Kaufman and Hart make him a proactive personality, and his big speech, in which he reminds his stuffed-shirt father of the elder Kirby’s long-discarded ambitions to be a trapeze artist and sax player, is effectively delivered. Schuck’s transformation from critical, closed-minded Wall Street businessman with indigestion to love-embracing prospective father-in-law benefits from Schuck’s crusty professionalism. Dotrice shows his mettle as an actor when he says, “You have all the money you need … you can’t take it with you.”
Unfortunately, the best moments arrive too late.