'You Can't Take It With You': A matter of authenticity

Saturday November 24, 2012

CAMBRIDGE, N.Y. -- Among the many qualities that make the members of the Sycamore family -- the clan that sits at the center of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s endearing 1937 Pulitzer Prize-wnning comedy, "You Can’t Take It With You" -- so appealing are their unaffected eccentricities, idiosyncracies and, above all, authenticity.

But while there is an abundance of eccentricity and idiosyncracy at Hubbard Hall, where Hubbard Hall Theater Company is having its way with this witty charmer, authenticity is in short supply in a production that is more concerned with self-serving gimmickry than with truth and honesty.

Produced on Broadway in 1936, "You Can’t Take It With You" celebrates in its mischievous subversive way the rugged American individualism that has fueled this country’s growth and nurtured its spirit, even in in the most challenging of times.

Comfortably ensconced in their Upper West Side New York brownstone, the Sycamores and their extended family hide in plain sight of the Internal Revenue Service and the F.B.I. while pursuing their harmless interests.

Penny Sycamore (Kim Johnson Turner) is writing seven or more novels -- none of them anywhere near being finished -- all at once as a way of putting to use a typewriter that was delivered by mistake. Her husband, Paul (Doug Ryan), spends much of his time in the basement inventing fireworks in partnership with an iceman (Scott Renzoni) who showed up at the Sycamores’ one day with a delivery and stayed.


When Penny and Paul’s daughter, Essie (Catherine Seeley) isn’t making candies which her apolitical xylophone-playing husband Ed (Brett Hanselman) individually wraps in papers carrying, unbeknownst nto him, incendiary political messages which he blithely prints out on his own printing machine, she is twirling around the apartment entertaining notions of becoming a ballerina, under the tutelage of an emigre Russian balletmaster, Boris Kolenkhov (a physically awkward Chris Barlow). Essie’s sister, Alice (Myka Plunkett in a performance that mimics the rapid-fire line delivery of 1930s screwball comedies but without the style or underlying emotional resonance) holds down a conventional job in an office and she’s fallen in love with her boss, the affable and amiable Tony Kirby (an absolutely winning -- and authentic -- Rylan Morsbach) who has the sense and sensitivity to embrace the Sycamores on their own terms and value them for who and what they are. His starchy parents, however, are something else again. Tony’s well-meaning plan to have his parents experience the Sycamores the way he does backfires and just at a time when a number of threads that hold the Sycamores together unravel.


With the notable exception of Morsbach, and, to lesser extents, Ryan and Turner, there is a sense throughout of actors playing roles rather than inhabiting characters.

It doesn’t help that director Jeannine Haas has thrown in some gratuitious gimmickry, most notably casting, for no discernibly valid reason, Christine Decker -- who also plays a sodden actress who passes out on the Sycamores’ sofa -- as Tony’s prim, proper, conservative businessman father. While Decker very nearly pulls it off, her trouser role appearance proves little more than a pretentious theatrical distraction.

It also doesn’t help that, as played by the ever-smiling and chuckling Court Dorsey, Grandpa Vanderhof, the family patriarch and the comedy’s anchoring presence, blends in rather than holds the center.


To her credit, Haas and her set design team make effective use of the flexible space at Hubbard Hall’s main stage, creating an inviting, at times evocative, intimacy between audience and actors. In an approach that stresses style over substance, Haas has wound up with little of either.


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