Martin Vanderhof thinks Maurice has it pretty darn soft in this world, and he’s right about that. The thing is, Maurice is Vanderhof’s pet lizard, and that exempts him from humanity’s outrageous fortunes, not the least of which is a standing threat over Vanderhof’s problem with back taxes. From upstage center, he watches life unravel among the motley folks that traipse through Vanderhof’s home, including some who don’t even live there but show up anyway ’cause it’s such a riot.
Vanderhof, who invites strangers for dinner at the drop of a hat, spearheaded the eccentricities that drive his household — he gave up the New York rat race 35 years ago for the promise of a better life through the pursuit of enjoyment, and he succeeded on a grand and important scale.
Therein lies the set-up for You Can’t Take It With You, Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s appeal to our better angels — life holds immeasurable joy, they seem to say, if only we’d simply let it come to us. They illustrate this with a boy-gets-girl story that’s almost lost in its predictability, but director Kerry Meads and producer Lamb’s Players Theatre know exactly how to embellish such story lines so they stay germane and many-sided. This play is precisely a Lamb’s vehicle — you’ll have no trouble recognizing it as such, and you’ll have a very good time with all of it to boot.
Vanderhof, father and grandfather to many of the characters here, must have been a shot in the arm among the play’s original audiences. The show premiered on Broadway in 1936, just as the Great Depression was showing the first signs of lifting, and the Pulitzer folks gave it their highest drama accolade the following year. It centers on love interests Tony Kirby (Jesse Abeel) and Vanderhof’s granddaughter Alice Sycamore (Megan Carmitchel), he a young business scion and she a stenographer and Tony’s subordinate. The kooky, eclectic Sycamore klan, Alice reasons, would never jibe with the button-down Kirby way of life, and Tony’s snobby father Anthony (John Rosen) reassures her she’s right.
Tony, of course, won’t take Alice’s “no” for an answer — they’ll eagerly reconcile, but not before Vanderhof persuades Tony’s dad that he despises his job and is miserable in his marriage (“You can’t take it with you, so what good is it?”). In the end, there stands the pontifical Vanderhof, supremely content with the world he’s made, cheerfully relinquishing to God the outcomes over which he has no control.
Understory after understory succeeds in coloring the characters, for exactly one and the same reason: Virtually all the people in the household suck at their avocations. Ditzy matriarch and wannabe playwright Penelope Sycamore (Deborah Gilmour Smyth) will never in fact complete a script amid what today would likely be called her ADD; her pyrotechnician husband Paul and his friend Mr. De Pinna (Steve Gunderson and Danny Campbell) keep blowing up the house with their cockamamie grasp on hard science; Ed Carmichael (Jon Lorenz) has adapted Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for the xylophone; wife Essie Sycamore Carmichael (Lauren King Thompson) has no idea she’s an absolutely terrible ballerina; Mr. Kolenkhov (John Polhamus) is an equally inept dance teacher, opting for platitudes over instruction.
In short, they’re all as inexpert as the rest of us, and they’re thus our flesh and blood. Meanwhile, the household’s pursuit of fun isn’t so much a self-indulgence as a lesson in work ethic.
Bits of business cascade from Meads’ stage, with Bryan Barbarin’s Donald a standout here. And I won’t divulge a particularly physical scene between Kolenkhov and Anthony — suffice it to say that Anthony gets his due. Little things like that equal big successes overall, except for Abeel’s grasp on Tony. Hart and Kaufman haven’t always drawn Tony particularly well, and Abeel watches himself act just a touch too much, almost as if he’s compensating for what the writing lacks.
I assume Robert Smyth’s sound design includes the music beds, which complement Mike Buckley’s set work (and its clutter). Each technical element, in fact, is a clear product of collaboration, for which Meads deserves due credit.
I used to live in a place like Vanderhof’s. It’s in Seattle. We called it The Fish House, comprising a court journalist, a photographer/computer guy, a medical examiner, a dancer here and there, an itinerant Irish folksong chanteuse, a pack rat who collected transformers, an exceedingly elderly dog, a cat with a broken jaw and about a million people who fished off Alaska in the summers. Something about the stars aligned over that house, host to an exhaustively scattered set of temperaments and skills — and I wouldn’t have traded the mutual learning experience for anything. Vanderhof was our figurative absentee landlord, and the play in which he’s the central figure charted an ideal glimpse at the path to personal happiness.
You don’t have to move to Seattle. You only have to see it for yourself in Coronado.
This review is based on the matinee performance of Feb. 21. You Can’t Take It With You runs through March 29 at Lamb’s Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Ave. in Coronado. $28.00-$82.00. (619) 437-6000, lambsplayers.org.