Fran Kranz on Joss Whedon and Broadway’s ‘You Can’t Take It With You’

When Fran Kranz was cast in the 2012 revival of “Death of a Salesman,” his first role on Broadway, his dad called him up to tell him he was now playing for the Yankees. This didn’t exactly help with his nerves at the time. Kranz called the pressure to live up to the legacy of that iconic American work “noise you don’t want to hear as an actor, you’ve got to focus on the story and your job. But it was hard not to with that show.”

He seemed much calmer, if still a touch in awe, at the Sunday opening of “You Can’t Take It With You” at New York’s Longacre Theatre. His new gig sees him upgrading to romantic leading man status, not to mention sharing the stage with heavy hitters like James Earl Jones and Rose Byrne.

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s tale of the clash between a free-spirited family of artists and an uptight Wall Street baron is a decidedly lighter story than “Salesman,” but it’s just as iconic (and critical of society’s ever increasing materialist bent) in its own way. It won a Pulitzer in 1937 and was adapted by Frank Capra into an Oscar-winning film in 1938, and was later revived for a small but highly influential high school production.

“This is one of the first plays I ever saw, it’s one that got me into acting. They did it at the high school I was going into. I thought they were older kids and I thought they were so cool. It was like watching pros, so this show has been something that I’ve loved my whole life,” Kranz told Variety at the Brasserie 8 1/2 party. “I definitely felt a sense of history. I know it’s won a Pulitzer, it won an Oscar, it’s one of the great plays… but [playing Tony Kirby] was more of a personal thing. I don’t play a lot of leading men, so one of the things that helped was that he falls in love with an eccentric family. Because of that, it made me realize he’s an eccentric person himself, to fall in love with the Sycamores. That was a huge help to block out the noise.”

Director Scott Ellis’ version of “You Can’t Take It With You” is dutifully zippy and tightly wound, but Kranz said the cast was able to achieve such precision due to the director’s hands-off approach during the early stages of rehearsal.

“He would direct specific things, like the comedy of door slams, the farcical stuff, the stuff that needed timing, the running across the room to go get the food, that big scene in the second act, but in terms of character work and the dynamic, he really let us play. And he let us do things that were too big and inappropriate and would never actually work, but he didn’t say anything, he just let us do it,” Kranz said. “He let us get to know each other, and behave in such silly, extreme ways, that when we came back down to earth and where the play really lives, we were so much more comfortable with each other. It kind of propelled our relationships into a place faster than it would have been, normally.”

Before his Broadway career kicked off, Kranz was best known for his work with genre-auteur Joss Whedon, who cast him in the sci-fi show “Dollhouse,” “The Cabin in the Woods” and his low-budget adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing.” “I love Joss, I owe him everything, I’m so in debt to that guy and he’s one of my biggest influences and teachers. I love him to death, but I got into this wanting to be an actor and do a lot of different things, my favorite actors are the character actors like Peter Sellers, people that have a lot of versatility. This is another direction and part of my career that I always dreamed of,” Kranz said, and then, before leaving to sit down with his family, quickly added, “But that being said, I want to keep working with Joss. As soon as he’s done with ‘Avengers,’ I want to be in the next little project that he does. I wrote him an e-mail saying, ‘You gotta do Hamlet with me.’”

Several of the cast members of “You Can’t Take It With You” toggle between careers, but Annaleigh Ashford perhaps dealt with the busiest night of all, as she had an opening night and a season finale of Showtime’s “Masters of Sex” on the same Sunday. She wasn’t available for a good deal of the first season because of her commitment to “Kinky Boots,” but, fortunately, her schedule was a bit more open this time.

“I’m just so lucky with the way the timing worked, that I was able to do the end of season two for ‘Masters of Sex.’ It is an interesting challenge walking on set after I’ve been onstage for a while,” she told Variety in between several congratulations from well-wishers. “There’s a definite difference in technique, but all the groundwork is the same.”

(Pictured: Fran Kranz, Rose Byrne and James Earl Jones at the curtain call of “You Can’t Take It With You”)

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