You Can't Take It With You is a classic play and also, easily, a clichéd choice for high school and college drama departments everywhere. The story by playwrights George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart of an eccentric household led by a tax-evading grandfather opened in New York in 1936, so it's several decades old. And it won the Pulitzer Prize that same year, which means it's been deemed worthy of reviving ad nauseam for almost as long. I say this to acknowledge the theater-savvy people who groan when they hear of yet another production of it. And yet there's a reason something's a classic, right? Like watching The Sound of Music every Thanksgiving or A Christmas Story at Christmas time, it's also a well-loved tradition and, like most of those, not earth-shattering.
Here's something you might have forgotten, though. You Can't Take It With You is a dig at Wall Street, which is as relevant now as ever. It's not an overtly political play, but its underlying message is ripe: the American dream as defined by money isn't all it's cracked up to be. A reminder of that always does some good, Mr. Scrooge.
The story takes place in the New York home of "Grandpa" Martin Vanderhof, which he shares with his daughter, Penny, her husband Paul, granddaughters Essie and Alice, a grandson-in-law Ed, servants Rheba and Donald and some frequent neighbors. Grandpa was neck-deep in the business world until he realized he was unhappy. Now everyone is encouraged to do what he or she wants—dance, catch snakes, write plays, paint portraits, play xylophone and make fireworks, among other things. When Alice decides to marry into a conventional family, all hell breaks loose on the night the two families come together for dinner. Shenanigans abound and lessons are learned, the biggest of which is: Don't waste your life acquiring material goods, which you can't take with you after death. Live for happiness. Carpe diem.
UM's production of the show, directed by the talented D. Marie Long, features a strong cast, most of whom play their roles with relish. The play opens in the family's living room, designed beautifully by UM student Shy Iverson, with the perfect clutter of knick-knacks, family photographs and stained glass to denote a comfortable middle-class family with quirky hobbies.
Suzanne Gutierrez as Penny pets a taxidermied animal on her desk as she types away at one of her sex-filled melodramatic scripts. She's good at the role in a carefully calculated way: just enough composed breeziness to denote a grown-up mother, and just enough distracted delight to show that her soul has not been sucked dry. The first act establishes the household in this same mood. Maia Mills-Low plays the servant, Rheba, with confident warmth, and Diego Javier Steele plays her husband, Donald, with charming silliness. It's still a household of its time and the black-servant aspect provides a whiff of insincerity, which produces some discomfort—are black servants in the 1930s happy just because they live with a fun family? At any rate, Kaufmann and Hart don't address race even a little bit and most productions, unless upended dramatically, have no device for directors to remedy it.
Bobby Gutierrez, Suzanne's real-life husband, plays her stage husband Paul, who emerges often from the basement with a powder-stained face from the fireworks he makes with Mr. De Pinna, his friend. Bobby, like Suzanne, plays it all in balance—not too crazy but with enough infectious mirth. Cole Hochhalter's Mr. De Pinna is on the over-the-top side, à la Urkel, which means you'll either really like him or not at all, depending on your take of the 1990s TV show "Family Matters."
Essie, who constantly attends to ballet at all moments despite being horrible at it, is played spiritedly by Alexsa Prince, who's deftly nailed roles from Viola, the girl-turned-young man of Twelfth Night, to Marcy, the hilarious party girl of Dog Sees God, based on the Peanuts characters.
There are several other characters here worth noting—Arcadea Jenkins's Olga and Eric D. Hersh as the uptight and bewildered but, eventually, won-over Mr. Kirby, to name a few. Others, like the IRS rep, seem like they could revel more in the repressed, money-focused sensibility of their characters.
There are two big reasons alone to see this production. One is G. Stephen Hodgson as Essie's boisterous Russian dance teacher, Boris Kolenkhov. Before there were "In Russia..." Yakov Smirnoff jokes, there was Boris. Not many could do this role better. Hodgson steals the scenes whether he's wrestling Mr. Kirby or providing bleak cautionary tales. The second reason is Peter Philips as the witty, casually rebellious grandpa. Philips, 73, is a retired doctor now pursuing acting at UM. His natural charm on stage makes it feel like Martin Vanderhof was written just for him. What a great character, too. After all hell breaks loose in a sit-comish climax of federal agents and other disasters, peace takes over and Grandpa stands around the table for grace, addressing a higher power with, "Well, sir, here we are again. We've had quite a time of it lately, but it seems that the worst of it is over." Philips's keen grasp of a man with wonderfully simple, common-sense answers makes us want to believe.
You Can't Take It With You continues at the Montana Theatre in UM's PARTV Center Thu., Dec. 8 through Sat., Dec. 10, at 7: 30 PM nightly. $20/$16 seniors and students/$10 children 12 and under.