You Can’t Take It With You might just be the safest play a theater could choose to mount. Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s Depression-era comedy is utterly conservative, celebrating the innocence, virtues, and triumphant good will of family. It is conventional, adhering to time-tested, girl-gets-the-guy comic form. The 1936 drama can also get cutesy, constantly calibrating to please; the current Broadway revival, directed by Scott Ellis, is the kind of show where the audience coos when little kittens are brought on the set unnecessarily and applauds as the leads make their first entrances with studied deliberation.
The comedy also counts as one of America’s most popular plays, a regional repertory staple that comes to us already familiar from countless high school and community theater productions. But despite all these good reasons for wariness, there’s simply no choice but to surrender to this ancient chestnut of a script when it reaches out to you across the footlights, begging for love. After all, You Can’t Take It With You is an ode to eccentricity and a touching entreaty to kick back, relax, and take life as it comes — and who doesn’t want to indulge in winning American sentiments like that?
Certainly not the endearingly daffy folks in the Sycamore household: Penelope (Kristine Nielsen) has been writing plays of dubious literary merit ever since a typewriter was mistakenly delivered to her door eight years ago. Her grown-up daughter Essie (Annaleigh Ashford), an aspiring ballerina, pirouettes spasmodically around the living room, coached by a mad Russian (Reg Rogers) and accompanied on the xylophone by her husband (Will Brill), who manufactures fireworks in the basement. Martin Vanderhof, a/k/a Grandpa (James Earl Jones), spends his days at zoos and commencements and refuses to worry about anything he won’t enjoy — like work or income taxes. Meanwhile, Essie’s straight-arrow sister, Alice (Rose Byrne), wants to marry her stolid boss’s eligible son but worries about finding common ground between the families.
When the unpretentious fiancé and his buttoned-up Wall Street parents arrive for dinner at an inopportune moment, everyone has to improvise — and, since it’s a comedy, excessively rigid characters must get transformed. (The drama’s racial anachronisms dangle awkwardly here, but it’s hardly fatal.) The evening’s pleasures come, in part, from the amazing precision of Kaufman and Hart’s craft: Every line shrewdly pushes the situation a little further toward catastrophe or resolution, and it can be surprising just how risqué a commercial script from this era could be, with sly ribaldry creeping into the family’s parlor games.
“I know they do rather strange things,” Alice declares at one point, throwing up her hands at her family’s zaniness. “But they’re gay and they’re fun and…there’s a kind of nobility about them.” Ellis’s A-list cast drives home that point through affectionate caricature — not that we need any help recognizing these grandiose characters’ underlying dignity. The always stately Jones brings so much gravitas to his patriarch’s role that we almost forget that Grandpa harbors crackpot tendencies. But everyone gets a comic turn or two here — which is why Kaufman and Hart’s script has always made solid-gold material. It’s an indestructible and charming play, and this spirited revival makes Broadway look like a more glamorous, but no less affectionate, version of the local drama club.