Classics endure because they stay relevant. I wasn't sure this would be true of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's 1936 comedy You Can't Take It with You. Nonetheless, I ventured to Newark, Delaware, for the Resident Ensemble Players' production and welcomed the chance to see this high-school and community theater staple tested by professionals.
While the play's folksy positivity remains intact, what surprised me was how well the Pulitzer Prize winner's themes relate to today's audience.
More than nostalgia
The Sycamore household — patriarch Martin Vanderhof (James Black) and extended family — live in a bustling, happy commune. Martin left business 35 years ago and now attends graduations and raises snakes. His pragmatic wisdom, made real through Black's brisk, no-nonsense delivery, grounds the play and guides both its humor and heart.
Daughter Penny (Elizabeth Heflin) has composed plays at her typewriter since it was delivered by mistake eight years ago, while her husband Paul (Stephen Pelinski) and their friend Mr. De Pinna (Lee E. Ernst) make fireworks in the basement. Their son-in-law Ed (Lenny Banovez) busies himself with a printing press and xylophone and sells the candy that their daughter Essie (Erin Partin) makes when not practicing her dancing, coached by Russian exile Kolenkhov (John Tyson).
The family's follow-your-bliss hobbies are also cottage industries. They live simply — something about income from Martin's properties, plus he hasn't paid income tax for decades — and only Essie's sister Alice (Sara J. Griffin) works a normal job.
Hugh Landwehr's scenic design makes the Sycamore house warm and comfortable despite its cheerful messiness, lit in golden hues by Kevin Rigdon, with handsome period costumes by Judith Dolan.
Not quite a farce, with more depth than a romantic comedy, You Can't Take It with You focuses on Alice's relationship with Tony (Michael Gotch), her boss's son. She worries that her family's eccentricities will overwhelm him and his rich, stuffy parents (John Rensenhouse and Carole Healey), fears that are confirmed when they arrive for dinner a night early and encounter the house's merry chaos.
Dollars and sense
Director Sanford Robbins's cast avoids the trap of emphasizing the comedy, even when it seems most tempting, as in Kathleen Pirkl Tague's two roles: tipsy actress Gay Wellington and exiled Russian aristocrat-turned-waitress Olga. They find humanity in these characters, whose busy optimism feels more like a resourceful response to the Great Depression than a lack of seriousness or sanity. Even African American maid Essie (Erin Partin) and her eager-to-please boyfriend Donald (David Rainey) — stereotypical characters who make us wince today — have, as Alice says about her brood, "a kind of nobility about them."
Beyond some dated jokes about FDR and Soviet Communism, You Can't Take It with You doesn't address economics much and won't stand scrutiny. The Sycamores both want government to butt out and expect its support, a common contradiction still believed by many. But the play's endorsement of inclusiveness, respect for differences, and encouragement to do what we love, feels contemporary, especially when not played as nostalgic sentimentality. More importantly, it rings true.