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THEATER: "You Can't Take it With You"

Hard to take

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I'd have liked to join in the congratulatory chorus for Geva Theater Center's 40th anniversary season, especially when it is beginning its season with a great American family comedy, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's 1937 Pulitzer Prize-winning "You Can't Take It with You." A deeply warm, graceful, and funny play about an eccentric family whose members march to their own drummers, the play needs to sparkle with a kind of homely jauntiness that sustains Grandpa Martin Vanderhof and his extended family of nearly a dozen eccentric souls. They find a welcoming home in his fusty old house, surviving on corn flakes and flourishing because they are free to do whatever makes them happy. Its idiosyncratic combination of wackiness and tenderness made it an uplifting play for audiences when it was new in the Great Depression, and it is a splendid choice for the same reason in 2012.

Although the play almost never raises its voice, its characters must embrace their sweet lunacy with perfect clarity and conviction; it's who each of them is. Yet the production at Geva, directed by Mark Cuddy, felt tepid and flat. Even its fireworks display just before the intermission needed a lacing of showmanship. Grandpa spends his days going to commencements and circuses — and caring deeply about those under his roof — but he also embodies the spirit of both the family and the play. Whoever plays him must with quiet surety carry the entire play forward. Therein lies the problem.

Robert Vaughn, aged 79 and still best known for the role of Napoleon Solo on the stylized TV spy show from the 1960's, "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.," lacks the vitality Grandpa needs. With his shock of white hair and wearing a rumpled seersucker suit, he certainly looks the part. Most of the time, though, he sits in a large armchair center stage, speaking barely audibly, fumbling lines occasionally (on opening night), and doing little to provide momentum or rhythm, or the grace and warmth I previously mentioned. On the few occasions when he has to stand and move to deliver a major set speech, the production picks up for a few minutes, but then he sits back down. He often looks like a barely engaged observer.

The malaise spreads across Scenic Designer Bill Clarke's open set that includes the house's living and dining rooms. The periodic family dinners — especially the one at the end — should be moving scenes that restore the family and reassure the audience. But in this production they feel like little more than a bunch of people sitting down to eat. Even Grandpa's eccentric way of saying grace felt more or less desultory. The production of this deeply felt play lacked emotional connection at its core.

The play has two major plot lines on which to hang the family's quirks. The Sycamores' "normal" daughter, Alice, wants to marry the son of her wealthy, conventional boss. The two families meet in the one of the play's best scenes, made successful largely through the funny, nuanced performances by Peggy Cosgrove and Robert Rutland as Alice's prospective in-laws. The second story concerns the pursuit of Grandpa by the IRS and his protection of his granddaughter Essie's husband from zealous federal agents.

What's essential about "You Can't Take It with You" is its Americanism. Kaufman and Hart have written a Broadway comedy that affirms the nation's deepest ideals. The characters may not be Thomas Jefferson or Henry David Thoreau, but they are devoted to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" with a singular intuitive idealism. Granddaughter Essie — overweight, married, and young — makes candy to sell and loves her decent but not very bright husband, but mainly she dances. A few steps across a room are never anything less than a series of sweetly absurd entrechats, arabesques, spins, and bends. Melissa Rain Anderson is lovable and graceful and enchantingly funny.

Most of the rest of the cast is not. Brigitt Markusfeld as daughter Penny, a slightly goofy undiscovered (and probably talentless) playwright and painter; Ray Falah as Mr. De Pinna, the ice man who made a delivery eight years ago and stayed; and Skip Greer as Paul Sycamore, Penny's husband who, with Mr. De Pinna's help, makes fireworks in the cellar, are dutiful rather than inspired. Funny lines fall flat and the production inches forward with what little momentum it can muster. This all-American play should, in its way, be as stirring and satisfying as a piece of music by John Philip Sousa, Irving Berlin, or Bruce Springsteen, but its flag is badly in need of an animating breeze.

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