Playwright: George S. Kauman, Moss Hart
At: Open Eye Productions at Athenaeum
Phone: (312) 902-1500 (Ticketmaster, fee); $15-$18
Runs through: Aug. 14
You Can't Take It With You pretty nearly is foolproof. It's the most optimistic and least sardonic Kaufman and Hart comedy, which may account for its enduring popularity. Just about everyone knows the play or film version and almost every actor has been in some production of it. It's wacky and loveable characters have withstood both the test of time and brutal assaults by high school and community theater actors. It's hard to sink You Can't Take It With You, but it's also hard to make it soar like an eagle. To make it soar you have to get both the spirit of the piece and the period details right.
Under director Christopher Maher, Open Eye Productions captures the hopeful heart, gentle satire and wistful charm of the play, written as a buck-'em-up romantic comedy in the depths of the Great Depression. It bucked 'em up plenty, capturing the 1936 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 1938 Best Picture Oscar. But it's tricky. Are Grandpa Vanderhof and the Sycamore family contented and harmless eccentrics? Or are they carelessly self-absorbed people who nearly ruin their daughter's romance, hopelessly out-of-touch with a real world about to explode? A caustic version of this play would be an interesting deconstruction, but you won't find it here. Open Eye respects the play's simpler world with its small problems, best-case solutions and warm drollery.
The period details are not perfection, but they go most of the way. The often-ragtag costuming hits pay dirt in the outfits for romantic lead Alice Sycamore, especially the fresh white-with-red-flowers frock in which she first appears. Smashing! The major furniture pieces are appropriate for a modest 1930's home, but the fancy French telephone and the 1950's radio (it should be a cathedral radio) break the illusion. And, say, that song everyone sings, 'Goodie, Goodie,' wasn't it written after 1936? Even a production in a small theater such as this one, staged on a tight budget, must achieve the fullest possible verisimilitude.
The acting mostly works, as director Maher and the 17-person cast use understatement to their advantage, a wise idea in a small studio playhouse. When they do not—a few moments with the Russian bear Kolenhekov—the balance and tone are thrown out-of-whack. Generally, the principal characters get it just right. Dean Peerman (Grandpa), Sara R. Sevigny (Penny Sycamore), Carolyn Wright (Alice Sycamore) and Daniel Shea (Tony Kirby, Alice's love interest) have a sensible reality about them that's a necessary anchor in a screwball comedy. As Grandpa, Peerman not only is the right age—which is rare enough—but also has an easy-going pixie-ish charm, a light and confident grace.
You can't take it with you, but you'll enjoy it while it lasts.