“Foxy Grandpa”, “Money in the Bank”, “They Loved Each Other”, “The King is Naked”, and “Grandpa’s Other Snake” were all rejected as titles by playwrights George S. Kaufman and his young collaborator Moss Hart.[i] They finally settled on “You Can’t Take It with You.”
The expression is very old, possibly dating from St. Paul’s reminder to Timothy, Bishop of Ephesus, in the year 64 A.D.
“For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we carry nothing out.”
The attitude is prevalent in early Christian thought and teaching, having formed the basis of Christ’s parable of the “certain rich man” who, having no room for his great harvest of grain, built new and larger ones, only to die the night before he was to fill the new silos. Saint Ambrose would conclude from this that since material goods remain behind: “Only virtue is the companion of the dead. Compassion alone follows us.”[ii]
During America’s Great Economic Depression all American looked to console one another and find hope. George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1936 comedy You Can’t Take It with You captured both the Christian message and the spirit of the times to win the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The play has gone on to become one of America’s most beloved and frequently produced. Perhaps the play is to our nation what Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House is to England; Captain Shotover’s house metaphorically represents the British Empire, while Grandpa Vanderhof’s living room represents the welcome relief we offer the offbeat of the world.
The Little Theatre of Virginia Beach presented an engaging version of the play, but before commenting on that, I’d like to review how the play came to be what it is.
Grandpa Vanderhof is the patriarch of a family of oddballs, committed in various ways to the pursuit of happiness through hospitality. Hart drew upon his wife’s English Solomon relatives, which included suffragettes, Zionists, and a hot air balloonist to form his family of eccentrics. The patriarch’s granddaughter Alice loves Tony Kirby the son of wealthy socialite conservative parents.
The question is, as always, can the lovers get together despite their family differences?
Grandpa, the wise if batty tax-dodger, presides over a very extended family. Penelope Sycamore, his daughter, fancies herself a playwright inclined toward sexy melodramas. Her husband Paul busies himself with making fireworks in the basement, assisted by Mr. DePinna the family’s long-ago delivery man who happily overstayed his welcome.
Penelope and Paul’s other daughter, Essie Carmichael, loves making candies when not studying ballet (with no sign of improvement) with the great Russian master Kolenkhov,. Essie’s husband, Ed Carmichael plays xylophone and enjoys setting movable type.
The household also includes an unflappable live-in maid Rheba, whose sweetheart Donald is a frequent visitor and unofficial handyman.
Visitors come and are welcomed with open loving arms – Tony’s uptight parents; Gay Wellington, an alcoholic actress; the Grand Duchess Olga Katrina, and Internal Revenue Agent Wilbur C. Henderson.
All comers are treated to an American version of the ancient Hospitality of Abraham, a tale no doubt familiar to the Jewish Hart and Solomon families.
In the account, the Lord appeared to Patriarch Abraham at Mamre in the guise of three travelers. Abraham was the son of Terah, himself a member of the ninth generation after Noah, a descendent of Shem, Noah’s most pious son. God has been testing Abraham, much like Sarastro tests Tamino in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, so see if he is worthy of the great blessing in store for him. Through the arrival of three travelling strangers God seeks to learn if Abraham’s special relationship with God still has room for him to willingly behave justly toward outsiders.
Abraham passes God’s test. And St. Augustine later warned,
“For thereby some have entertained Angels unaware.”[iii]
because Christ had proclaimed, “I was a stranger and you took me in.”
And no stranger assemblage of strangers have ever been hosted, than the one in Kaufman and Hart’s classic comedy.
As in the Hospitality of Abraham, this beloved American comedy demonstrates the need to put aside self-love, pride, and vanity in order to see the divine in others, in one’s neighbors. As the great ethicist Leon R. Kass, remarked,
“Hospitality toward strangers recognizes the importance of moderating, even while preserving, the distinction between the same and the other, between one’s own and the alien.”[iv]
When Abraham treated strangers as God-image bearer, he was rewarded without any expectation. His long barren and aged wife Sarah became pregnant.
When the Vanderhofs treat strangers in a similar way, they, too, are rewarded without any expectation. Miraculously, the government issues Grandpa a tax refund rather than a past-due tax bill!
The success the Little Theatre of Virginia Beach enjoys with its production of You Can’t Take It with You may be traced to director Casey Venema, a “new member of the LTVB” family, who accomplishes the first, and most important task of a director – she casts the play with flying colors. Not a bad or weak performance is to be found in the large cast ensemble. Many performances are superior, and a few are so fine, I can’t imagine anyone doing better anywhere else, at any other time.
Casting the roles of Donald and Rheba have stopped many directors in their tracks. The playwrights call for the roles to be played by African-Americans. However, the roles are conceived in the old-fashioned stereotypical fashion of the times, now quite offensive to audiences, and off-putting to would be African-American actors. Ms. Venema casts non-whites in the roles. Lisa Annunziato and Jonathan Stephenson make the transposition seamlessly, though Donald’s references to “freeing the slaves” and “Father Divine” come across as puzzling when said by a white man. Kaufman and Hart wanted non-Caucasian characters in the cast to demonstrate that Grandpa’s hospitality knows no limits, either of ethnicity or of race. Ms. Venema fulfills that goal by casting Niasia Thomas as the boozy actress Gay Wellington, who turns in a refreshingly understated interpretation to an often-overdone role.
Ms. Venema moves the characters around the tricky apron stage easily and meaningfully. Often her bits of staging are startlingly imaginative, as when Alice, played perfectly by Catlyn Temple, hops onto the window seat to get away from beau Tony, played as an antihero by Douglas Hardman. The couple’s reconciliation scene is then played from this interesting location. While the movements during the play are quite effective, the pre-show, entre acte, and exit pantomimic dramatizations seem random and pointless. No information is conveyed through them which isn’t conveyed by the action of the play itself. More time should have been spent on helping the characters exit quickly and efficiently.
Seeing actors reappear in new roles can be a mixed blessing. Fortunately Matthew Payton-Downey, who was so enjoyable as Gary Lejeune in Noises Off a couple of years ago, is on hand to presented a wacky Ed Carmichael, and Frank McCaffery, so effective as good-neighbor Charley in Death of a Salesman last year, offers us a Paul Sycamore as the All-American dad, temporarily pre-occupied.
Many actors make the most of their brief time on stage to create cameos which remain with the audience after the play. Tom O’Reilly’s elfish and spritely Grandpa; Becca Schatti’s gymnastically- inclined ballerina Essie; Victor Pisone’s archetypal government employee Henderson; Robin Chapman’s Kolenkhov Russian ex-patriot choreographer, still fuming about Stalin’s outrages as he choreographs the well-meaning Essie; Mary Lou Mahlman’s Olga Katrina, gloriously keeping the grand Romanov style alive while climbing the American ladder of success; Josette Dubois’ as the long-suffering trophy wife of Mr. Kirby; Sean Ireland’s as the friend-craving Mr. DePinna, the delivery man who stayed forever.
And then there are performances which I don’t think could be improved upon. Carolyn Collings presents a Penelope Sycamore with a style and bearing right out of a Thin Man movie. Marc Dyer presents a gentle Mr. Kirby as the kind of businessman who would gladly foreclose the Frank Capra Bedford Falls bank, all for the greater good, you see. Chris Kraus is so perfect as a G-Man that one suspects he watched dozens of period cops and robbers’ films to get it as right as he does.
The scene design by Dennis Lawheed and George Horvath accentuate the cheerfulness of the place, making it a visual oasis in a city of despair. The stage accouterments of Sandy Lawrence deserve special praise for being so varied and conducive to humor, all the while remaining in the time period of the play. Lisa Bobotas’ costumes are excellently appropriate to person, profession, and place. Unfortunately, the hairstyles of Mr. DePinna and Tony were glaringly out of the period of the play. Jeff Seneca created very effective sound effects for the production. Unfortunately, they emanate from speakers no way geographically near their on-stage source.
Abraham offers God thanks. Grandpa offers God thanks twice, once before each family meal of hospitality. Then and now, strangers may be agents of God’s grace, waiting to bless your life.
Thank God for his wonderful and mysterious ways.
And thank-you Little Theatre of Virginia Beach: A wonderful play done with loving hand and clear-thinking minds is a treasure for all to embrace.
[i] Steven back. Dazzler. The Life and Times of Moss Hart. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2001, p.145.
[ii] Saint Ambrose, “Exposition of the Gospel of Luke,” Homily # 7, 122.
[iii] St. Augustine. The City of God, 16; 29.
[iv] Leon. R. Kass. The Beginning of Wisdom. Reading Genesis. New York: Free Press, 2003, p. 318.