In most comedies there's one crazy among the sane. Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, Broadway's royal couple, give us a whole house full. In this most American of plays, winner of the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, it's the loonies who are normal - sweet, innocent, decent and upright. The household of Grandpa Vanderhof (James Black) contains what's right with the world. Full of hangers-on who have come for dinner and stayed for years, this close-knit family knows how to live and how to get the most out of it. They have fun. Their anarchic comedy is so infectious, we want to move in, too.
The Alley polishes this classic with its patented gloss right from the get-go with that deliciously scrabbled set by Hugh Landwehr. Everything but the kitchen sink is on view: grandpa's snake tank, Ed's clunky printing press, the skull that dispenses candy, rubber masks, a dart board, Penny's typewriter and, later, easel, paper streamers, potted cacti, and that giant musk ox grinning down from the wall. The pineapple wallpaper is a touch of genius. The set's a comedy character all by itself - messy and lived-in, but warm and inviting: home.
Constructed like a Swiss watch, the play is a marvel of timing. Characters rush about, doors slam, people enter, fireworks erupt in the basement, gags are set up, and the confusion is comforting. The piece whirls along, dropping political comments and social satire like they were Ed's little printed sayings that he plants in Essie's candy boxes. The play never slows down.
If the plot's slight - will "normal" daughter Alice (Emily Neves), the only one in the family with a job, marry the boss's son Tony (Jay Sullivan) after the snooty Kirbys (Paul Hope and Anne Quackenbush) meet her extended family? - nobody cares. It's the characters who drive this play and make it live and laugh. This is a play for actors, and Hart and Kaufman supply a fabulous who's who of non-conformists for the Ally regulars to sink their teeth into and gobble up. The large company, on the same wave length thanks to director Sanford Robbins and his whiplash pacing, has a very good time. We do too.
Where to start with these zanies? Grandpa, the leader of this circus, is the wry observer who's already found the key to his happiness. "Don't settle" is his motto. Black gives grandpa a clipped delivery and faster pace than the others, usually while seated at the table. Nothing gets by him. Grandpa's daughter Penny (Josie de Guzman) writes plays because a typewriter was dropped off at the house years ago and she wants everybody to be happy. She runs the house and is as scattered as it is. Her husband Paul (Todd Waite) makes fireworks in the basement with his friend Mr. De Pinna (Jeffrey Bean). Paul and Penny's other daughter Essie (Melissa Pritchett) wants to be a ballerina and prances about the house while husband Ed (Chris Hutchison) plays his xylophone.
"She stinks," says Essie's part-time teacher Kolenkhov (John Tyson), a Russian immigrant aghast at his former mother country. (With electrified hair curled like Elsa Lancaster in Bride of Frankenstein, and overwhelmed in a baggy, stuffed suit, Tyson stops the show whenever he appears, as mad as a hatter.) The house is really run by Rheba and Donald (Jasmine Bracey and David Rainey), an unmarried black couple. Donald is "on relief," but hates standing in line for half an hour to get his check. "It breaks up my week," he deadpans. The Kirbys are as stuffed as that musk ox in the living room, and when Penny's party game with its naughty sexual allusions goes awry, the real fun begins.
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What else do Hart and Kaufman throw into the mix? There's a wrestling match between Kolenkhov and Mr. Kirby. How about Gay Wellington (Elizabeth Bunch), a besotted actress who Penny picked up on the bus to be in her play, who regains consciousness just long enough to plant a big wet kiss on Mr. Kirby. And don't forget Olga (Alma Cuervo) a cousin of the former Czar, who now works as a waitress in Times Square. Kolenkhov brings her over to the house for dinner. Dressed like a faded Leon Bakst costume sketch out of the Ballets Russe (Judith Nolan's wacky costumes are spot-on), her white Russian emigre adds another delicious layer to this origami-folded comedy. I've forgotten the G-men who arrest Ed for political pamphleteering and, when the fireworks go off in the basement, arrest the whole lot of them; as well as the clueless IRS agent (David Matranga) who gets a lesson in government from Grandpa when he shows up to collect a decade of back taxes. The entire household lands in jail for the night, which of course is just when intermission occurs.
Although the many wisecracks come naturally out of the characters, this rollicking comedy, beautifully mounted by the Alley, is America at her best. Free and liberated, the Vanderhof world is where we all want to live. You Can't Take It With You hasn't dated one comma since 1936.
Broadway's immortal comedy shines anew through October 20 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. Purchase tickets online at alleytheatre.org or call 713-220-5700. $26-$100.