Still Funny After All These Years

You Can't Take It With You? Of course you can. In fact, you really should!

Watching the dizzy shenanigans in Stray Dog Theatre's staging of You Can't Take It With You is the next-best thing to riding the Faust Park carousel nonstop for two hours. By the time this three-act smile finally winds down in an affectionate sing-along finale, you're likely to feel as giddy as a kid at the carnival.

It's no surprise that critics carped when Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's genial yet slight 1936 Depression-era screwball comedy won the Pulitzer Prize, because — homilies aside — there's so little obvious substance here; this Romeo and Juliet story about two young lovers separated by social status is that gossamer. But in the decades since 1936, all of that season's more heavyweight Pulitzer contenders have vanished into irrelevance. Meanwhile, You Can't Take It With You merrily rolls along, delighting new generations of audiences with its ingratiating view of an eccentric American family as reflected through the prism of a funhouse mirror.

One senses that director (and former Riverfront Times theater critic) Deanna Jent advised her eighteen-actor ensemble to not try to be funny. Better to trust the material and let the laughs come as they may. The result is that this account of the loony Sycamore family simply happens, and we're treated to a slew of refreshing cameos. None more so than Colleen M. Backer as daughter Essie, a would- be ballerina who swirls through the evening like a dying swan with hiccups. In most productions Essie is little more than part of the backdrop. But the breathless Backer becomes the evening's barometer. When events make her sadly earthbound, we too are sad and yearn for her to take flight again. As goes Essie, so goes the world.

You can't take this great ensemble cast with you — though you might want to.
You can't take this great ensemble cast with you — though you might want to.

Details

Through June 24. Tickets are $18 ($15 for students and seniors). Call 314-865-1995 or visit www.straydogtheatre.org.
Clayton High School's Little Theatre, 1 Mark Twain Circle, Clayton.

More plum casting: As Essie's accompanist husband, Adam Flores comes up with all sorts of clever uses for xylophone mallets. Bobbie Williams, who enacts one of the family servants, has eyes that in a crisis bulge so large, they actually could pass for saucers. Too often Alice, the daughter who hopes to marry the boss' son (an appealing Tyler Vickers), is portrayed by straight-arrow actresses who could not possibly have grown up in the firecracker-making, Erector Set-building Sycamore family. But Paris McCarthy is beset by a wee strain of lunacy. It's not so much that she's embarrassed by her nutty family — but rather the fear that she's forever part of this family — that makes McCarthy's Alice all the more poignant. It's simply a given that Steve Callahan is too young to play aged family patriarch Grandpa Vanderhofer. Callahan chooses to emphasize Grandpa's eccentricities rather than his age, and we go along for the ride.

Act One is mostly easy-to-take exposition that establishes the Sycamore clan's oddities. The action grows more pointed during Act Two, when we meet Alice's prospective father-in-law, an uptight Wall Street broker. This already buoyant production receives a crucial lift with the arrival of Kevin Beyer, who delivers yet another flawless performance. In his ability to instill a sense of self-deceiving wrongheaded rightness into a one-dimensional role, Beyer becomes the unexpected linchpin in the evening's success.

Midway through Act Three, after the Sycamore family has enjoyed a glamorous visit from a once-elegant Russian refugee, family matriarch Penny Sycamore (Donna Weinsting, ideally cast) wistfully says of the Grand Duchess, "She made me forget about everything for a minute." The same can be said of this whirligig valentine: For 130 charming minutes it's likely to make you stop fretting about world crises and spoiled-rotten celebrities and even struggling baseball teams. You Can't Take It With You is the perfect antidote for a hot summer night. Watching the dizzy shenanigans in Stray Dog Theatre's staging of You Can't Take It With You is the next-best thing to riding the Faust Park carousel nonstop for two hours. By the time this three-act smile finally winds down in an affectionate sing-along finale, you're likely to feel as giddy as a kid at the carnival.

It's no surprise that critics carped when Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's genial yet slight 1936 Depression-era screwball comedy won the Pulitzer Prize, because — homilies aside — there's so little obvious substance here; this Romeo and Juliet story about two young lovers separated by social status is that gossamer. But in the decades since 1936, all of that season's more heavyweight Pulitzer contenders have vanished into irrelevance. Meanwhile, You Can't Take It With You merrily rolls along, delighting new generations of audiences with its ingratiating view of an eccentric American family as reflected through the prism of a funhouse mirror.

 
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