My expectations were perhaps too high for “You Can’t Take It With You.” The Jungle Theater boasted a great cast and a favorite director — and I had a fond memory of seeing this Pulitzer Prize-winning script in a 1997 Guthrie production.
Gary Gisselman’s staging, which opened Friday in Minneapolis, gets hamstrung between the play’s madcap energy and its underlying message. There is a soggy bottom in the Moss Hart-George Kaufman classic: What once felt new and subversive now seems curiously odd and only occasionally amusing.
Hart and Kaufman used an eccentric family and a star-crossed love affair to celebrate a philosophy that has run like a revolutionary undercurrent through generations of American industry: Don’t do work you don’t love. Follow your bliss and live simply.
In the case of Grandpa Martin Vanderhof, that means quitting your Wall Street position and not paying income tax on the little money he makes each year. Actor Raye Birk plays Grandpa as a wise old man, rather scholarly — certainly not as an eccentric crank who doesn’t trust the government with his taxes. On its own terms, Birk’s performance has many honest, sentimental moments, yet it does not find the scruffy edges of a man at odds with convention.
Grandpa’s daughter, Penny Sycamore, writes plays — bad plays — because she took it as a sign when a typewriter mistakenly was delivered to the house years ago. Angela Timberman is very good at this kind of work — the antic human who hides her native intelligence behind a goofy laugh and wears life lightly on her shoulders. Timberman is in every moment. Every gesture feels sincere.
Allen Hamilton steals the show, blowing a bombastic breath of life into the stale first act and every time he reappears as the Russian émigré who ostensibly coaches a daft Sycamore daughter in her impossible dream of being a ballerina. Hamilton is an awesome sight: big bushy beard, wild hair — a huge man full of throat and red of face.
Anna Sundberg and Hugh Kennedy are the young lovers — Alice Sycamore from the crazy clan and Tony Kirby from a rich industrialist family. Both actors are enormously appealing. Sundberg appears to feel more deeply the reality of Alice’s situation with honest passion. Kennedy plays the role with a slight eye toward spoof, which diminishes our efforts to feel Tony’s passion.
John Middleton and Jay Albright are charming as father Sycamore and his assistant in the family fireworks business. Nathaniel and Cathleen Fuller have the stiff backbone and social air for Tony’s rich parents. And no one gets more from her brief time on stage than Charity Jones as an alcoholic actor who drops by to read one of Penny’s plays.
All this good work, solidly built around Tom Butsch’s cluttered set and Amelia Cheever’s costumes, somehow lacks a central, animating flair. It’s a soda that looks good but tastes flat. Or perhaps the drink is old and has lost its fizz. That happens sometimes. Life is not always what we expect.