It’s apt that a pair of actual kittens appear in the opening scene of the Jungle Theater’s new production of You Can’t Take It With You, because the entire show is kitten-like: it’s cute; it’s largely (but not entirely) inoffensive; it’s relatively quiet even when it’s loud; and once it curls up in your lap, you find yourself feeling affection for it whether you planned to or not.
The 1936 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart is about as well-roasted a chestnut as American theater has to offer: it won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1937 and an Academy Award for Best Picture in 1939, and it’s been revived a quadrillion times (including a 2014 Broadway production starring James Earl Jones), but you still may not have seen it before unless, like my girlfriend, you have memories of a high school production performed by teenagers trying to wrap their heads around characters who remember life before the U.S. had an income tax.
The show has a sprawling cast: 18 actors make their way across the Jungle’s compact stage over the course of three acts, and thanks to director Gary Gisselman’s top-notch casting, we’re generally happy to see them come and sorry to see them leave. The play centers on an eccentric family that helped set the template for meet-the-parents comedies from La Cage Aux Folles to The Addams Family: young Alice (Anna Sundberg) has to introduce the parents (IRL spouses Nathaniel and Cathleen Fuller) of her fiancé (Hugh Kennedy) to her father (John Middleton) who makes fireworks in the basement, her mother (Angela Timberman) who writes salacious plays, her sister (Julia Valen) who constantly wears pointe shoes, and the other assorted characters who fill her bustling house at various hours of the day.
These pros make the most of every line, which is critical given how simple these characters are, and how slight their gags. Timberman in particular establishes the show’s tone and tempo, relishing in her lovably batty matriarch. Lovably is the key word there, and you really feel the warmth among the members of this fun-loving brood; Sundberg strikes the perfect notes at the center of it all, though you wonder where her signature quirk is. Raye Birk, as Alice’s grandfather, is also crucial in anchoring his family with whimsical gravitas, and although I would have sworn going in that I couldn’t summon another drop of interest in watching someone tell a self-important Wall Street titan to slow down and smell the daisies, damned if I wasn’t getting a little misty by the end of Birk’s Big Speech on the subject.
This show will inevitably attract an older crowd; Tuesday night’s audience was as uniformly white-haired as any I’ve been among when the performance isn’t a matinee. If you’re of a generation for whom Kaufman and Hart mean reliable brand-name entertainment, by all means, go to see this big-hearted new production. If you’re not, your level of interest in this show may hinge on how ready you are to focus on fine performances and strong stagecraft in the service of a script whose idea of a low blow is a joke about Eleanor Roosevelt’s mannish appearance.
As we settled in for the show’s third act, my girlfriend returned from the lobby with a beer. “I was going to save my money,” she shrugged, “but I figured…well, you can’t take it with you.”