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Revival of 1936’s ‘You Can’t Take It With You’ shows its age and uneven acting

James Earl Jones

By Mark Kennedy


NEW YORK _ You know the play you’re watching might be a little long in the tooth when there are jokes about Eleanor Roosevelt, the Works Project Administration and Calvin Coolidge, and it makes reference to the nation’s 48 states. As in not 50 yet.

The Great Depression was still palpable when Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman wrote their Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy “You Can’t Take It With You” in 1936, some 23 years before Alaska and Hawaii joined the Union. A sweet revival opened Sunday at the Longacre Theatre with a perfectly picked cast but offering little reason why this old chestnut needs to be seen again.

It stars a remarkable ensemble that includes such stage luminaries as James Earl Jones, Elizabeth Ashley and Byron Jennings, the British actress Rose Byrne, seasoned veterans Kristine Nielsen and Reg Rogers, rising star Annaleigh Ashford and TV favourite Mark Linn-Baker.

The play is about the eccentric Sycamore family, which includes Ashford as an overly eager ballet dancer, Baker as a father who makes fireworks in the basement, Nielsen as a daffy playwright of a mother and Jones as a snake-raising loaf. This band of nutcases is joined by Rogers as a Russian dance teacher and Ashley as a czarist noblewoman now waitressing in exile.

Somehow, the Sycamores have managed to raise a normal child _ Byrne, making her Broadway debut. She’s fallen in love with the scion of a Wall Street banker, played by Fran Kranz. But when a night at the Sycamore home means explosions, a guy playing the xylophone, a woman dancing in a tutu and a man in a toga, it’s no wonder she wants to keep her beau far away.

“Everybody’s got a family,” he reasons to her. She responds: “Not like mine.”

But fate has other plans and the Sycamores end up hosting an impromptu party with the rigid, humourless parents of their daughter’s betrothed, played by Jennings and Johanna Day. Cue the madness.

Though the cast is peerless, they attack it unevenly. Scott Ellis, who did brilliantly with the revival romp of the big-cast “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” has Jones at the centre, understated and stately, with Rogers, Ashford and Ashley playing it so over the top it’s like they’re in a vaudeville act. Even so, they’re almost demure compared to Julie Halston, who plays a soused actress and deserves a special Tony Award for Going Up a Flight of Stairs.

And while Byrne is supposed to be the straight one, she’s taken it too far and resembles a doomed heroine from a Henry James play. She’s luminous, sure, but far too serious, and Linn-Baker has decided to attack his role as if he were in a documentary. Nielsen is superb as a perpetually befuddled dreamer, while Jennings and Day are fabulous as controlled, uptight fussypants. It would be nice if they were all rowing in the same direction.

David Rockwell’s overstuffed set is a wonder, beautifully capturing the Sycamores’ eccentricity and love of life by putting art and bric-a-brac in every conceivable space. Jason Robert Brown, one of theatre’s great composers, supplied incidental music, which is like asking Bruce Springsteen to play a bat mitzvah.

But no one is credited with creating the actual fireworks that sizzle onstage, which, despite all the respected actors shooting off in different directions like errant Roman candles, are the real pretty part of this production.



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