by Hugh Hunter
“You Can’t Take It With You” (1936) by Moss Hart & George S. Kauffman was a big hit in its day, winning both the Pulitzer Prize and then the Academy Award for best picture in 1938. Now running at Allens Lane Theater, this favorite from the Depression era is equally an amusing entertainment and a time capsule curiosity.
Set in Manhattan, all action takes place in the home of the oddball Sycamore family. “Grandpa” (Richard Lee) rules the roost. This formerly successful businessman had an epiphany 35 years ago: never do anything you don’t enjoy doing. Nice work if you can get it.
Under director Noel Hanley, the play keeps you amused with the capricious waywardness of all the household members who follow grandpa’s mantra. His daughter, “Penny” (Bonnie Kapenstein), is a painter and playwright. Her husband, Paul (James Golden), tinkers with firecrackers. Their daughter, Essie (Brianna Borouchoff), is a ballerina student, and husband Ed (Daniel Shefer) plays the xylophone. Comically, everyone has zilch talent for what they love to do.
Other queer folk drift into this family orbit. Reba (Letta Brown) is an African-American housemaid. Her boyfriend, Donald (Thomas Abraham), and a former iceman, Mr. DePinna (Robert Ruelan), putter about the house. While a drunken actress, Gay (Tenara Calem), and an exotic pair of emigre Russians, Olga (Jessica McDonald) and Kolenkhov (Geremy Webne-Behrman), drop by and really liven up the stage.
Alice (Kaitlin Healy), Penny’s other daughter, is the only “normal” person in the family. She both loves and is embarrassed by her family. Alice falls in love with Tony Kirk (Vincent J. Raffaele), the son of a Wall Street bigwig. The play hits both its comic and dramatic high when Tony’s parents (played by Tom Boland and Janet Wasser) meet the Sycamore family for dinner.
Director Hanley delights in the quirkiness of these characters and has the cast act out their inner child. The production also gets a boost from the striking costume design of Kellie Cooper. In the showdown scene, the colorful idiosyncratic attire of the Sycamore clan clashes vividly with the establishment Kirby family, dressed in their formal evening wear.
“You Can’t Take It With You” is the prototype for all those shows about offbeat families, out of joint with mainstream society like “The Beverly Hillbillies” or “The Addams Family.” This motif offers safe, low-level anarchy that amuses but poses no serious challenge to the existing order.
The play is also a Depression-era romance, served up with a big slug of escapism. While no one in this family works (except Alice), in the real world of the ’30s people could not find work. But it is still produced today because grandpa’s “conversion” of Mr. Kirby remains a parable for what is valuable in life and because the nuttiness of the Sycamore family can still make you chuckle.
Allens Lane Theater is located at 601 W. Allens Lane in West Mt. Airy. “You Can’t Take it With You” will run through Jane 28. Reservations at 215-248-0546.