What becomes a legendary comedy most? Laughs, of course. Oscar Madison saying “F.U. Took me three hours to figure out F.U. was Felix Ungar!” — why, I’ll bet you laughed just remembering the first time you heard that line from The Odd Couple.
Did any writers understand more perfectly how to extract laughs from an audience than George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart? None put preposterous people in ordinary situations, and ordinary people in preposterous situations, more knowingly than Kaufman and Hart, for whom the term situation comedy might as well have been invented. From the first category came arguably their best collaboration, You Can’t Take It With You, which opened on Broadway in 1936 and was memorably filmed by Frank Capra two years later with a cast that included Lionel Barrymore, Jean Arthur, James Stewart and Ann Miller.
In the overpopulated, lavishly eccentric home of Martin Vanderhof live his playwright daughter and fireworks making son-in-law; their two grown daughters — one a would-be ballerina who, after eight years of training shows no evidence of either advancement or talent; the other a working woman at a Wall Street bank — the cook and her live-in boyfriend; and the odd hanger-on passing through the nightly display of noisy errant cherry bombs, play readings, exotic dancing and general doing of one’s thing.
Grandfather Vanderhof, played in the new revival at the Longacre Theatre by James Earl Jones, walked out on his day job 35 years ago and has devoted himself to collecting snakes, improving his darts game, attending commencement exercises and avoiding income tax. His working granddaughter Alice, played in her Broadway debut by Rose Byrne, of Damages and the current This Is Where I Leave You, has fallen in love with Tony Kirby (Fran Kranz) the well-groomed son of her extremely prim and proper boss. What will happen when the Kirbys come for dinner? A very comical situation indeed that will also include a Russian dance instructor, several G-men and, for good measure, a very drunk actress and a Russian countess, the last two played by the great Julie Halston and the greater Elizabeth Ashley respectively.
Reviewing the premiere for the New York Times, Brooks Atkinson described the show as “written with a dash of affection to season the humor and played with gayety and simple good spirit. To this column, which has a fondness for amiability in the theatre, You Can’t Take It With You is the best comedy these authors have written.”
The revival, staged by Scott Ellis, works its fanny off to make these characters come alive, but it succeeds only intermittently and with much huffing and puffing where a little of Grandfather’s oft-suggested relaxing would do. Even David Rockwell’s paraphernalia-packed set works too hard. For Ellis has staged the show as a farce, which it is not, rather than the comedy with heart that it is: This is the show to which A Thousand Clowns, La Cage Aux Folles, Barefoot in The Park, The Addams Family and so many others pay homage, and whose lesson is simply to live life and have a good time at it. So misguided is this production that you may find yourself sympathizing with Mr. Kirby when he calls them all insane — before falling under their spell, as inevitably he must.
Jones is as always magnificent, if more reticent here than usual, and Byrne is a bit too stolid to make Alice’s abject fear of losing Tony much fun. Still there are some great moments, many provided by Annaleigh Ashford, who stole the show in Kinky Boots and does so again here as the dancing daughter with the just-forget-it jeté and puppy-dog mien; Ashley in an extended cameo as a Czarist refugee waiting tables in Times Square until she can move on up to Schrafft’s, serving blintzes to the masses and, especially, Kristine Nielsen — late of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike — as the dithery playwright with a knack for saying exactly the wrong thing at any given moment.