Tuesday, May 26, 2009

At Chautauqua: visiting the bad old days

Chautauqua photo

It’s tempting to compare our current economic malaise with the Great Depression of the thirties, but today we’re focused on fixing the problem rather than flirting with overthrow of the government. In its light-hearted way “You Can’t Take It with You,” now at Carmichael’s Chautauqua Playhouse, challenges our work ethic, the moral underpinning of the capitalist system.

By the popular team of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, the play idealizes a family, the Sycamores, that does what it enjoys instead of working for a living. As the title suggests, you only live once. Mother Penelope writes unfinished plays on a typewriter accidentally delivered to her home. Meanwhile father Paul, aided by Mr. De Pinna, who lives with them, makes fireworks in the basement.

Daughter Essie makes candy while Ed, her husband, prints quotations from Trotsky on a tiny printing press. Grandpa Vanderhof made his bundle and dropped out of the workforce decades ago. Now he hunts snakes and attends commencement exercises. The high point of the first act is his patient dismissal of an IRS agent who can’t show him that he gets full value for his tax dollar.

The one “normal” member of the clan is daughter Alice, who has a job. She’s in love with Tony Kirby, her boss’ son, and has invited his family to dinner–except that Tony gave them the wrong date, thus creating a belated plot complication when the conventional Kirbys confront the Sycamores.

Others in the household include Rheba, the maid, her boyfriend Donald, and Boris Kolenkhov, a Russian refugee who teaches Essie ballet. Mr. and Mrs. Kirby are sucked into the vortex by Penelope’s free association game, revealing the shocking baggage in their unconscious minds. Add to this blend Gay Wellington, an actress who gets drunk and passes out on the sofa, and Olga, a former czarina who now waits tables in a chain restaurant.

Despite some laughs the first act so bleeds the eccentricities of the characters as to make the play seem dated, but the second act, with the arrival of the Kirby’s, generates some real excitement. Under Boots Martin’s skilled direction, for example, Larry Rehrer and Carolyn Gregory, as Mr. and Mrs. Kirby, bring sympathy for the hapless couple rather than playing them as stuffy stereotypes.

In fact the cast as a whole is well chosen: Diane Bartlett (Penelope), Jessalyn San Gregorio (Essie), Betty Cummings (Rheba), John Walck (Paul), Warren Harrison (Mr. De Pinna), Marc Berman (Ed), Corey Winfield (Donald), Daryl Petrig (Vanderhof), Shana McCarl (Alice), Bob Nannini (two roles), Jeff Thomas (Tony), Kent Miller (Boris), Paula Campanella (Wellington), Patrick Campbell (Mac, a cop), and Marie Raymond (Olga).

Rodger Hoopman provides a functional yet unobtrusive set, including a deer’s head with a necktie. And Eileen Beaver offers expressive costumes, especially to the two “Russians.”

“You Can’t Take It with You” continues through June 21 at the Chautauqua Playhouse, 5325 Engle Road in Carmichael’s La Sierra Community Center. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $17 general and $15 for students, seniors, children and SARTA members. Call (916) 489-7529 (PLAY). See also www.cplayhouse.com.

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