Mr. De Pinna delivered ice to the Vanderhof home eight years ago, and stayed. When Mr. De Pinna isn’t modeling for one of Penny Sycamore’s paintings, he and her husband Paul experiment with explosives in the basement. The milkman stayed five years. When he passed away they still didn’t know his name. No matter. Names aren’t important at 761 Claremont. Neither is time. When someone asks a gaggle of Vanderhofs the time of day, no one has a clue. They’re so busy practicing ballet, building a Ferris wheel with an Erector set, or playing Beethoven’s Fifth on a marimba, they wouldn’t know the day of the week.
All abide by Grandpa Martin Vanderhof’s simple motto: “Life’s kind of beautiful if you let it come to you.” Basketball players often hear “Let the game come to you,” and actors should hear “Let the play come to you.” The motto frees the Vanderhof’s to smell the roses and chase whims without the slightest taint of judgment.
No one does a hobby particularly well. But no one except Mr. Kolenkhov, the stern Russian ballet master, even notices (when he says young Essie’s dancing “stinks,” Grandpa says, “oh well, as long as she’s having fun”). The only “sin” for the Vanderhofs is holding back.
The house is a ten-ring circus, but only seems so when Alice Sycamore falls in love with her boss’ son, Tony Kirby, and his parents drop by for a visit. At Lamb’s Players’ excellent production, Jemima Dutra’s costumes enhance the odd coupling: the Vanderhof’s pastel cotton prints as ornate as the faded rugs on Mike Buckley’s richly detailed set; the aristocratic Kirby’s in jet black formal wear, as stiff as their upper lips. Black-and-white and Technicolor: Kansas and Oz.
The night I caught the show, during intermission a gent opined for all to hear, “What a bunch of eccentrics!” Clearly he meant the Vanderhofs. But Grandpa, and authors George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, would disagree. According to the play, the real eccentrics are the Mammon-driven Kirbys, on a collision-course with ulcers and an early grave.
Budding playwrights should read Moss Hart’s Act One, about his struggles as a writer (and how he teamed with Kaufman). Budding playwrights could also study You Can’t Take It With You for its amazing craft. It seems to unfold in a staggering sprawl, Vanderhofs following their bliss hither and yon, everything apparently amok. But each character has a distinct entrance and memorable exit line. Each stays alive and receives appropriate focus. At the same time, and this one of their greatest gifts: Kaufman and Hart keep the others alive as well. And the authors really know how to “button” a scene.
So does Kerry Meads. She’s directed the comedy before, and it shows. In large and small ways (including brief, downstage parades that facilitate scene changes and set up the next one) Meads sets the play’s irrepressible spirit free.
Jim Chovick heads a top-notch cast as Grandpa Vanderhof. Eccentric? Come on. He’s the sanest person in the house — and the audience. The role’s a minefield of false choices, but never once is Chovick smug, sanctimonious, or, as they used to say in the olden days, “groovier than thou.” He expresses his thoughtful, liberating beliefs as just part of the day (as when he asks, “How many of us would be willing to settle for what we eventually get?”) Splendid work.
Ditto for Danny Campbell’s quietly spectacular, often gun-powder sooty Mr. De Pinna; Steve Gunderson’s ever-game Paul Sycamore; Deborah Gilmour Smyth’s boundary-less Penny Sycamore; and Megan Carmitchel’s nicely conflicted Alice, torn between love of family and Tony Kirby (stylish Jesse Abeel).
Typical of a Lamb’s show, the ensemble blends so well it’s hard to identify where the leads leave off and supporting roles begin. John Rosen does a deft emotional thaw as Mr. Kirby (and a wrestling flip worthy of the WWE); Cynthia Gerber makes the most of icy stares as his wife; John Polhamus gives Mr. Kolenkhov the appropriate size and sneer; Brian Barbarin, Cashae Monya, and Lauren King Thompson inject frequent humor. And talented Jon Lorenz plays Beethoven’s Fifth on the marimba.
Kaufman and Hart could write priceless cameos. Hair parted down the middle, an acre of nerves, Jeffrey Jones’s Henderson’s a funny/creepy IRS geek. Eileen Bowman has a lark as drunken actor Gay Wellington, deep in her cups, and the erstwhile Grand Duchess Olga Katrina of Russia. She remains regal in spite of her post-revolution demotion. Lamb’s also adds cameos by Groucho and Harpo, stage savvy kittens.
Some plays should be staged every ten years or so to keep their message alive. Our Town has that quality: a secular sermon about what matters in life. Same with You Can’t Take It With You. Both plays step out of time, as we live it, and take time to reflect. It’s best not to reflect too closely on how the Vanderhof’s fund their whims in Depression-riddled 1936, however, or how they would fare today. Given our government’s surveillance grid, the playful, tax-dodging Vanderhof’s would face some serious time.
You Can’t Take It With You, by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
Directed by Kerry Meads; cast: Deborah Gilmour Smyth, Lauren King Thompson, Cashae Monya, Steve Gunderson, Danny Campbell, Jon Lorenz, Bryan Bargarin, Jim Chovick, Megan Carmitchel, Jeffrey Jones, Jesse Abeel, John Polhamus, Eileen Bowman, John Rosen, Cynthia Gerber, Brian Rickel, C. Heath; scenic design, Mike Buckley; lighting, Nathan Peirson; costumes, Jemima Dutra; sound, Robert Smyth; props, Rachel Hengst
Playing through March 29; Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 4:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-437-0600. lambsplayers.org