Even those familiar with Kaufman and Hart’s 1936 comedy You Can’t Take It With You have reason to revisit this so-called old chestnut, currently playing on Broadway in a sparkling revival helmed by Scott Ellis and starring James Earl Jones (who made his Broadway debut in 1957) and Rose Byrne (who’s currently making hers). Ellis, an associated artistic director at Roundabout Theatre Company, knows how to accentuate the play’s period charm by bringing out the best in his top-notch cast of Broadway stalwarts.
The play, a favorite with high schools and community theatres, follows the eccentric Sycamore family, particularly daughter Alice (Byrne), who’s dating her boss’s son, Tony Kirby (Fran Kranz), but is ashamed for her family and his to intermingle. While his parents are wealthy society types — his father grows orchids, and his mother dabbles in spiritualism — hers are more free-spirited. Alice’s mother Penelope (Kristine Nielsen, hilarious) is a playwright of dubious talent, and her father Paul tinkers with fireworks in the basement of the family home, which is owned by the family patriarch, Penelope’s father Martin Vanderhof (Jones), a retired businessman and tax evader.
You Can’t Take It With You has a familiar romantic comedy arc, but its seasoned cast adds an antic slapstick touch. Nielsen, also a standout in Christopher Durang’s Vanya Sonia Masha Spike last year, brings her signature flighty delivery in a truly inspired performance. James Earl Jones, despite somewhat diminished vocal power, brings ample heart to his role, tasked as he is with the bulk of the play’s earnest speeches. Annaleigh Ashford, a Tony nominee for Kinky Boots, plays Alice’s sister Essie, an aspiring ballerina who’s constantly — hilariously — flitting about the house, even during the most inappropriate times. Hilarious cameos from Julie Halston as boozy actress Gay Wellington and Elizabeth Ashley as Olga add to the general sense of mirth.
Were they in a lesser play, it could almost be asserted that the cast was “all in their own plays” as critics often like to say when actors are off in their own worlds, separate from their cast mates despite their common mission. In this instance, given the wacky personalities of the play’s central characters, what could have been a dig becomes the highest of compliments. Though their performances veer off on wild tangents, it’s all in service of the play as a whole, which seeks in a bubbly fashion to highlight individualism within families.
In her Broadway debut, Rose Byrne as Alice helps to anchor the madness; she’s the straight man in the fun house. Her exasperated expression as her family eventually dances, recites, and ignites its way to the local police station says it all. She knows her family is different, special — maybe too special. Through her eyes, we understand the trials of family life but also its rewards, a juxtaposition Kaufman and Hart’s play underscores perfectly.