Welcome to Geek Out/Freak Out, where theatre fans get super enthusiastic about things.
This week, Stages editor Mark Blankenship geeks out (via Google Doc) with Catherine Sheehy, chair of Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism at Yale School of Drama and Resident Dramaturg at Yale Repertory Theatre.
Hi Catherine! As you may recall, we were recently talking about the current Broadway revival
of You Can’t Take It With You
, which led us down all sorts of roads about the play's enduring relevance
, surprisingly resilient humor, and ongoing hold on the culture. And being the industrious fellow that I am, I thought it might be fun to revisit some of those ideas today… but WITH A TWIST.
The twist, of course, being that we both recently re-watched Frank Capra’s 1938 film, which won the Oscar for Best Picture and stars a whole bunch of Great American Actors.
So with that in mind, I’d like to launch with this opening volley: Now that you’ve been re-immersed in both the film and the Roundabout’s revival, did you find yourself discovering anything fresh in You Can’t Take It With You
? Something that you perhaps hadn’t noticed before?
I have to say that it was my memory of Frank Capra’s film version that almost kept me from even attending this current revival. If I hadn’t had some friends in the cast, I might never have gone. But I am so very glad I did! The play itself is so much less heavy-handed than the film version, with its screenplay by Robert Riskin and its characteristic "Capra corn."
You mean you find it unsubtle when Lionel Barrymore makes a huffing speech about how neighbors used to be friendly, but now they fight and carry on?
But seriously… I had never seen the film until this weekend, and mostly, it proved to me that the original play is remarkably fleet and insightful. But I’ll tell you something that works for me in both versions… that scene where the Kirbys walk in on the entire Vanderhoff/Sycamore clan painting and dancing and generally acting like fools. It seems like a miracle to me that something can still be so funny after so many decades.
There are two things I think work about that scene. One is the genuine warmth that Kaufman and Hart have established in their characters without sentimentality...or rather at the verge of sentimentality. Penny with her play about a woman in a monastery, Grandpa telling the snakes they’re lucky that they don’t have to participate in human institutions like graduation, Kolenkhov sure that everything stinks! These people are not just lovable eccentrics, but they are lovable eccentrics with very keen social perception AND extraordinary tolerance for each other and for everyone around them. The other reason I think it’s always funny is because Kaufman honed his craft with the Marx Brothers, who knew better than anyone that the stuffiness of a drawing room went best with absolute anarchy.
Okay, I am SO glad you brought up the fact that this play---and most of the film---unfolds in a drawing room, because that location signals a lot of why I love it. Ultimately, this play presents this utopia of a space where everyone who enters immediately falls under the spell of open-hearted tolerance, which results in them expressing their best selves. Crucially, those "best selves" don’t necessarily mean their "most skilled selves," because God knows Essie will never be dancing with ABT, but the selves that are least constrained by the so-called American ideals of capitalism and striving and success above all. Instead, everyone who enters this particular room gets to enjoy those other
American ideals of individualism and self-actualization.
And to me it’s crucial that it all takes place in a drawing room, because the living room/family room/drawing room is such a powerful battleground for American identity. From O’Neill to Modern Family
, we’ve played out so many ideas of ourselves in the room where the family gathers. If Mr. Sycamore were blowing up fireworks in a remote yert somewhere, it would be easier to dismiss him as a fringe weirdo, but by placing him and all the others in a family room, the play insists that we take these people seriously. One more way it refuses to let them become a joke.
Whew! But all that leads me to a question: Could you talk a little bit more about how you think the play avoids sentimentality? Because I agree, but I’ve never been able to quite articulate why.
Yes, but first I want to give you an example from the play about the "best selves"and talent.
You’ll remember that right at the top---when Essie comes in with her new candy creation, Love Dreams---Penny says that they’re delicious and soon Essie will be opening her own shop (capitalism, lurk, lurk). Essie says, "That’s what Ed (her husband) says. But I want to be a dancer." Now even though you have to hire an actor who CAN dance, Essie herself CAN'T dance. As we know from Kolenkhov, “She stinks!” But she easily rejects "the American Dream" for her own.
(Now to sentimentality)
What’s great about You Can’t Take It With You
is the mixture of the naive and the knowing. It pretty much broke down along collaborative lines, with Kaufman the supreme man of the world and Hart the softer side, the optimist. Irving Berlin wrote the song, "Always" for a Kaufman/Marx Brothers collaboration...except instead of the lyric, "I’ll be loving you always," Kaufman used to prefer, "I’ll be loving you Thursdays."
Okay, total sidebar. Can we talk about Essie and about how Ann Miller, who played her in the movie, was only 15 at the time? She looks 45.
Ann Miller made a whole career of not being the glamor girl. She went from You Can’t Take It With You
to Stage Door (another reworking of a Kaufman play, this time with Edna Ferber) as Ginger Rogers' dancing partner. Her nickname was “Stringbean” in the movie. She simply has NO sex. Later of course, she made her fame dancing for The Great American Soup Company in TV commercials. She danced on the top of a soup can!
Now that’s sexy! And meanwhile, it’s not like Annaleigh Ashford is a sexpot or anything, but I’ve got to say that I vastly preferred her take on the character. She proves the old saw that you have to be smart to play dumb, and when she twirls, twirls, twirls to emphasize a point, I want to give her a Tony on the spot.
I agree, she was extraordinary. It’s also partly a function of a stronger script for the play, but her terrific, you should forgive the expression, turn in this revival brings up the single most important reason for its success---CASTING!
Oh, I thought you were going to say KITTENS! Which is part of casting I guess.
Kristine Nielsen PLUS kittens? PLUS Reg Rogers? PLUS Byron Jennings? PLUS Mark-Linn Baker? PLUS Patrick Kerr...you get the idea. Scott Ellis didn’t put a foot wrong.
Indeed. It’s always a good sign when even the actors playing the smaller parts come in with something fully formed. Julie Halston as the drunk actress, for instance.
But before we get too fixated on the cast, I’m wondering if I can ask you about something I have never quite grasped in this play.
Of course. Ask away.
What do you make of all the seditious statements that Ed prints in the bottom of those candy boxes? The characters brush them away by saying the Ed will print anything without considering what it means, but they’ve always seemed like big statements coming from the playwrights. Not that they want to bomb the capitol or anything… but those messages have to be doing SOMETHING other than setting up a joke.
Yes, to be sure. But it seems to me to be more about a joke on the society’s terror of "the Red menace," just as the word association game is about society’s fixation on the new craze of psychoanalysis. I think in the play, Paul, Grandpa’s son-in-law, has a copy of Trotsky’s writings in the bathroom...a joke in itself. So the Communist literature is lying all around the house. But because the Vanderhoff/Sycamores believe more in individuals than "isms"(I don’t think they’d even care for individualism), those tracts don’t mean anything more to Ed than the chance to use a great typeface...Cheltenham!
Such an elegant font! I hope it won’t bother you too much if this conversation is published in boring old Calibri.
The font of the people, good old Calibri!
Now it's your turn! Have you seen this revival? Or Capra's movie? What did you think? Geek out with us in the comments!
Photos by Joan Marcus