Reviewed by George Basler
The world got you down? Feeling a little under the weather? A surefire remedy is a short drive away at the Cider Mill Playhouse in Endicott.
The remedy isn’t a pill, but a sparkling production of the 1936 comedy You Can’t Take It With You, which chronicles the eccentric Sycamore family as it happily copes with the Great Depression of the 1930s. The play opened last Thursday (Nov. 5).
Sure, the play is a bit old-fashioned, but that doesn’t diminish the craftsmanship and skill of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart in writing what can safely be called a classic of the American theater.
In this case, “classic” doesn’t mean stuffy. You Can’t Take It With You is just plain fun. Its wit and warmth are refreshing at a time when foul language and fart jokes — not to mention a snide attitude and downright meanness — are the calling cards of too many so-called “comedies.”
And the 18-member Cider Mill cast, under the direction of Tim Mollen, is pitch perfect in bringing the Sycamores and other assorted characters to life.
Crucially, they avoid the fatal mistake of going over the top in portraying the eccentric family. The characters are quirky, to put it mildly, but always believable. (The one exception is Kate Murray’s portrayal of a dipsomaniac actress. Murray is unabashedly over-the-top, but the tone fits the character hilariously.)
You Can’t Take It With You is certainly anchored in the 1930s when it was first produced. References to Kay Francis, a once-famous actress; Leon Trotsky, a once-infamous Communist, and the Russian Revolution might leave younger audience members scratching their heads. Moreover, its jabs at Wall Street and focus on a working-class family are very much of a time when America was coping with an unprecedented economic upheaval.
But while other playwrights of the day — Clifford Odets, for instance — were deadly serious in focusing on economic and social issues, Kaufman and Hart played the Sycamores’ situation for laughs. Undergirding the mirth, however, is a sense of warmth and good feelings that takes the play to another level and makes it timeless.
In fact, the show’s message of the love of family and acceptance of others seems even more relevant today when family life seems under so much stress. Equally prescient is its message that happiness is more than 60-hour work weeks and the latest electronic gadgets.
But let’s not get all serious here. At its heart, You Can’t Take It With You”is a delightful romp. Smiles, giggles and belly laughs are guaranteed.
The cast, which includes a large number of Cider Mill veterans, is uniformly first rate. Under Mollen’s direction, it functions as a well-tuned ensemble. Everyone is in top form so picking a favorite or “best” performance is really impossible.
That being said, the central plot point is the romance between Alice Sycamore, the relatively normal family member, and Tony Kirby, the boss’ son at a Wall Street brokerage firm where Alice works. Their relationship has to work for the play to work.
Fortunately, the chemistry between Amoreena Wade and Bret Jaspers is very much in evidence. They make a charming couple. Wade is especially good in conveying her realistic, but open-hearted, attitude toward her wacky family.
Another key to the show is the character of Grandpa Vanderhof, who functions as the family’ paterfamilias and expresses the play’s central theme of the need to embrace the joy in life. Mitch Tiffany is effective in that role, especially in the finale when his speech on the need to be true to oneself wins over Tony’s stuffed shirt of a father (well-played by Chris Nickerson).
The fact that this transition seems totally natural, not abrupt or phony, is a tribute to Kaufman and Hart’s writing and the quality of the Cider Mill production.
Credit should also go Sami Adamson’s set design, Paul Radassao’s lighting design, Rhiannon Randall’s costume design and Patrick Lachance’s sound design for catching the homey atmosphere of the Sycamore residence.
What can I say? I’m still smiling as I write this review.
IF YOU GO: Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays through Nov. 22 at the Cider Mill Playhouse, 2 S. Nanticoke Ave., Endicott. Tickets are $28-$32; call 748-7363, visit the box office or go online at www.cidermillplayhouse.org