The quality and consistency of Rochester theater has seen rapid growth in the last few years, buoyed by loyal audiences, experimental show choices, and an avid performer base that comes out to audition for every show.
But at a certain point, the question must be asked: Does a local theater scene within a city of Rochester's size reach capacity -- are there not enough actors or resources? It's a query most recently prompted by Screen Plays' current production, "You Can't Take It with You," which runs through March 18 at MuCCC.
"You Can't Take It with You" is a 1936 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart (the same team who wrote the slightly better-known "The Man Who Came To Dinner"). It won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for Best New Play, and the 1938 film version starred Lionel Barrymore and Jimmy Stewart. The plot follows the tale of the Sycamores of New York City, an eccentric, hobby-loving family whose youngest daughter is in love with the son of a Wall Street business owner. When the two families meet, it proves disastrous, but over three acts -- and in this case, just over two-and-a-half hours with intermission -- a saga of acceptance and love plays out onstage.
The storyline, however, is lost in translation during this production.
Community theater is a special world of volunteer hours, amateur enthusiasts and hobbyists together onstage, and of sets and props cobbled-together during tech week. Dropping lines is almost certainly a given, and there will never be enough men to fill the gender-specific roles. Not to mention there's usually some pre-casting that happens before auditions (a friend of the director wants a role, perhaps) or ill-fitting casting choices based on the ages of available actors.
Productions of "You Can't Take It with You" are classic examples of community theater. Screen Plays is a group of folks with big hearts, and it's clear they really enjoy what they're doing. However, there are a few in this particular cast who do most of the proverbial "heavy lifting" on stage when it comes to acting. It's not apparent whether that's due to experience, natural talent, or rehearsal time.
Just a few minutes into the play, there was stumbling over lines and character names, and a late entrance. Actors lifted eyebrows at each other's missed lines and (too) lengthy pauses happened when a line was missed. Sound and light cues were also missed, causing actors to tap dance instead of proceeding with the corresponding line. And there was lots of overacting: affected voices, deadpan glances at the audience, fake crying, and screaming that startles.
It's a large cast, and director Karen Tuccio has done her best to spread the talent into the appropriate roles. Unfortunately, there are problems with actors being much older than Moss and Kaufman intended for certain roles, which feels awkward as it's played out. But one actor (Suzanne Bell, bless her soul) plays three different characters during the show, to hilarious effect.
Other standouts include the always-captivating, patriarchal Roger Gans (as Martin Vanderhof/Grandpa); charming newcomer Derek Schneider (Tony Kirby); and comedic duo Judie D'Ambrosio (Grand Duchess Olga Katrina) and David Byrne (Boris Kolenkhov) as the Russian family friends. Kate Lacy-Stokoe (Penelope Sycamore) also has some admirable comedic moments throughout the production.
As a hobby and an amateur art form, community theater is vital. (And as Mr. Kirby says in the play, "I suppose every man has to have a hobby.") It's where many famous performers first get a taste of the stage, after all. Screen Plays is collecting cans for Foodlink during the run, a nice gesture. But when the mistakes in a show detract from enjoyment and overall content of the show, it's time to rethink the company's strategy in show choices, production quality, and casting, and maybe the ticket price, too.