In what is billed as their "last show of the millennium," Smokebrush Theater has turned to one of the best-known and most often produced plays of the century, a classic comedy that defies the aging process and delivers the kind of punch any playwright would be proud to aspire to.
George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart didn't originate madcap comedy filled with zany antics and unconscionable comic coincidence, but they well-near perfected it with You Can't Take It With You. The playwrights build a delirious alternative reality with fistfuls of sanity-challenged characters, ensuring that by the time a normal, everyday businessman and his wife take the stage in the second act, the audience is already primed to see them as stuffy, conservative stuck-in-the-mucks.
The play originally opened in 1936, and it is filled with a carefree philosophy that was a refreshing antidote to the hard times of its era, celebrating creativity, free-spiritedness and stubborn individuality. Its heroes walk away from practical concerns, letting themselves slip into intoxicating comas of escapist illusion and delusion. For a couple of hours at least, the Sycamore family offered a starry-eyed alternative to world-weary audiences.
The Smokebrush production makes an indelible impression before the first scene even begins, thanks to Michael Stansberry's glorious set design. The living and dining rooms depicted onstage are enough to make you want to move in before the show closes and the flats go into storage. Stansberry, in conjunction with props diva Suzi Dillon, have filled the stage with sumptuous antiques and period pieces, ranging from the printing press stage right and a live snake center stage, to the deep woodwork on the stairway and in the foyer by the front door. In an era of apologetic minimalism, there's nothing like an exquisite design to free up the imagination for other pursuits during the performance.
Penny Sycamore is the leading lunatic in the family, working her way through one unwritten play after another -- an avocation she picked up eight years ago when a typewriter was accidentally delivered to the house. The stage is quickly filled with her daughter Essie's efforts at ballet, her son-in-law Ed's xylophone performances, the explosive experimenting with fireworks in the basement from her husband Paul and his assistant Mr. DePinna -- one of the accidental occupants who came to deliver the milk and never left -- the drunken histrionics of the actress Gay Wellington, and a kitchen full of blintzes, courtesy of the Grand Duchess of Russia, currently slumming as a waitress in New York. The patriarch of the family is Grandpa Vanderhof, who walked away from Wall Street 35 years ago to idly follow his bliss.
The action picks up when the Sycamores' younger daughter Alice invites her fianc's straight-laced family over for dinner. Alice is the black sheep of the family, the Marilyn Munster of the bunch, uncharacteristically conventional and desperate to keep her family's legacy under wraps at least through one critical dinner party.
Barbara Summerville and LeAnne Carrouth anchor the cast as Penny and Essie, hitting just the right note of mayhem and keeping the brisk-paced comedy relentlessly on pace. The rat-a-tat repartee between the various members of the household keeps the audience on its toes with scarcely time to catch their breath. Summerville and Carrouth are joined by Bruce Carter as Paul and John Barber as Mr. DePinna, maintaining the delicate balance between high-energy chaos and carefully crafted characters.
The ensemble occasionally misses the beat when actors stray too far from the measure, either accelerating a bit too frenetically or stalling somewhere below the finely-tuned idle of the Vanderhof-Sycamore clan. David Paynter's Grandpa, for example, is a welcoming, folksy creation, but too often he lapses into a prop-your-feet-up-for-an-anecdote approach rather than the flying-bottle-rockets-by-the-seat-of-the-pants pace. At the other extreme, Scott Allegrucci fills Ed's every moment onstage with high-octane schtick, but his constantly gunned engines often obscure the focus from characters who need the audience's attention.
As the only grounded member of her family, Merritt Janson's Alice is easily overshadowed by the more colorful members of her clan, but Janson still underplays the character, overlooking the spark of personality that first attracted Tony to her. Troy Gleeson's Tony is the play's ultimate straight man, redirecting all his energy to projecting his ceaselessly growing infatuation with Alice. Other notable performances come from Sonya Barnett and Melvin Grier in challenging, outdated roles as Rheba, the domestic, and her boyfriend Donald.
Despite a few speed bumps and brake failures along the way, the production never gets derailed and, overall, is an upper-echelon rendering of an enduring comedy for the ages.