Comedy classic opens Thursday at TFAC

Published 1:32 pm Tuesday, May 13, 2008

&dquo;You Can&squo;t Take It with You,&dquo; which opens this Thursday at the Tryon Fine Arts Center presented by the Tryon Little Theater, first opened on Broadway in December 1936 to instant critical and popular acclaim, ran for two years, and won the Pulitzer Prize for playwrights George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.&bsp; In the seven decades since, it has always been in production somewhere in the country, including a few Broadway revivals.

Set in the delightfully chaotic living room of the marvelously odd Vanderhof/Sycamore extended family, &dquo;You Can&squo;t Take It with You&dquo; relates what happens when a stuffy upper crust family finds itself in the midst of this crazy household of free spirits in their wholehearted pursuit of happiness.&bsp; And although much has changed since the 1930s, surprisingly many of the problems the world faced then are still with us today . . . unemployment, economic uncertainty, unstable foreign governments, threats to homeland security.&bsp; But ultimately it is this classic&squo;s universal themes of family, love, and living life to the fullest which still continue to resonate the most.

One Los Angeles Times critic wrote, &dquo;What makes this play so warm and inviting is its shameless sentimentality. &squo;Life&squo;s pretty simple if you just relax,&squo; believes Grandpa. &squo;There&squo;s a bright side to everything.&squo;&bsp; Kaufman and Hart were writing a play in 1936 to offer spiritual relief from a debilitating Depression. You can take it and survive the recession. It&squo;s a wonderful life. No wonder Frank Capra directed the movie version.&dquo;

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Back when the play first opened in New York, critics called it &dquo;superior fooling,&dquo; &dquo;thoroughly amusing,&dquo; &dquo;winningly tender,&dquo; &dquo;all absurdity,&dquo; &dquo;full of hilarious incongruities and extravagances, without any serious contribution to social or political philosophy.&dquo;

These judgments take on greater resonance when seen against the background of the theatre of the 1930s, which saw the flowering of plays of social protest, of &dquo;proletarian&dquo; theatre, often grim and humorless depictions of life as it was being lived during the Great Depression. &dquo;You Can&squo;t Take It With You&dquo; was thus greeted by some with relief as an escape from the harsh realities just outside the theatre doors.

Still, this play was dealing with a family&squo;s response to exactly those same social and economic pressures ‐ but doing so with laughter, an approach analyzed by Charles Kaplan, Professor Emeritus of English at Cal State at Northridge: &bsp;

&dquo;The central figure is a philosophic grandfather whose ideas motivate the actions and behavior of the other family members.&bsp; The uninhibited members of the Vanderhof/Sycamore family dance, play the xylophone, make candy, write plays, throw darts, feed snakes, and in general practice the twin gospels of total relaxation and total individualism.&dquo;

Kaplan goes on to look at how Grandpa Vanderhof takes time to notice when spring comes around.&bsp; While some reject a life governed by money because it lacks dignity, Grandpa rejects it because it&squo;s no fun. He and his clan have chosen to live by the principle that your individuality must be paramount, whether you choose to dig in your heels, rear back, and holler ‐ or just to opt out and go a different way.&bsp; Individual dignity and freedom: the strongest of themes presented in the context of delighted laughter.

And laughter abounds! How could it not&ellip; with Essie suddenly twirling through the living room as she practices her ballet, Paul coming up from the basement to show off his latest fireworks creation, Penny changing which play she&squo;s working on because she&squo;s got her female lead stuck in a monastery and can&squo;t get her out, Mr. De Pinna coming upstairs in his old toga-wearing-discus-thrower costume to pose for a painting, Mr. Kolenkhov arriving to mooch a dinner while passing along his questionable ballet wisdom, Ed happily printing another insert to go in Essie&squo;s candy boxes he&squo;ll sell over the weekend, Rheba serving up another gourmet meal of hot dogs, Donald running errands to the market, Alice wishing her family were a lot more normal, Mr. Henderson wanting Grandpa to pay 24 years worth of back taxes, Tony Kirby wanting Alice to marry him and stop worrying about his parents&squo; opinion, Mr. and Mrs. Kirby revealing some very telling things in a word association game, Gay Wellington getting more and more sloshed, the three G-men shaking everyone up with jail, Grand Duchess Olga Katrina entering elegantly on her day off as a waitress, and Grandpa loving every minute of it!

Come see TLT&squo;s presentation of &dquo;You Can&squo;t Take It With You&dquo; this week Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. at TFAC, and see how it all began ‐ this clear guarantee of laughter. For it was Kaufman and Hart with this show who originated the formula of a lovable family getting into scrapes and overcoming obstacles, a format used for many years now by most of television&squo;s situation comedies.

Want to laugh this weekend?&bsp; Of course you do. Call TLT at 859-2466 for tickets.

Note: See article on director Francis McCain, page 8.