It's no wonder that You Can't Take It With You is one of American theater's most beloved and successful comedies. It's animated by many of the same passions, proclivities, and subconscious forces that make this great nation great: sexual repression, intense paranoia, hatred for government, welfare fraud, income-tax evasion and blatant racism.
But all those things are either readily forgiven or easily overlooked because (a) it's a very funny comedy written in part by a master craftsman of the genre, George S. Kaufman, and (b) the good guys finish first. In this 1938 work, the good guys are the wacky family of Martin Vanderhof, a collection of free spirits and naive homebodies who dare to march to their own rhythms, even when the beat sounds suspiciously moronic. The family's mental faculties are charmingly dull at best, and its social psychology is borderline pathological. By refusing to compromise their valueless principles-nothing but doing what they want matters-this most benign family manages to beat the IRS, the FBI and Big Business.
The theme of the simple Everyman beating Big Government or other complex forces is one of the hoariest in American history. Who were the American revolutionaries but a collection of virtuous salt-of-the-earth folk armed with pitchforks and wooden spoons defeating an oppressive British empire? And we're still fed a steady diet of hayseeds, bumpkins and borderline morons who manage to survive or best the system with nothing more than their simple, pure natures, such as Forrest Gump and Truman of The Truman Show.
The largest pool of Everyman stories, of course, was formed during the social turbulence of the Great Depression. Most of the heroes fall somewhere between Jefferson Smith (in Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Smith is an idealistic cipher who, with nothing more than pluck and moxie, paralyzes the entire federal government) and the angry, sullen Tom Joad (in John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath, he is forced to live an outlaw life by the forces arrayed against him and his family).
You Can't Take It With Youisn't nearly as propagandistic as either example; Kaufman and co-writer Moss Hart were men of the commercial theater and would never have dared risk displeasing their audience with politics that took any kind of real stand on an issue. But amid the wise-cracking, proto-sitcom schtick, it retains obvious politics.
Politics is what director Tom Hardy gets most right in this Garden Grove Playhouse production. Flawed by clumsy direction in many places and uneven acting throughout, You Can't Take It With You manages to be funny enough to entertain while also reminding us why plays like this are recognized as American classics. This play is truly a battle-or at least a genteel skirmish-between the forces of populist America, which is typified by the Vanderhof family's leave-us-the-fuck-alone-to-do-whatever-the-hell-we-want-and-everything-will-be-all-right attitude, and Establishment America with a capital “E,” which is symbolized by the bottom-line-oriented, we-must-consume-and-produce Kirby family.
Old man Vanderhof (an endearing Bob Goodwin) gave up his office job 35 years ago because he realized he wasn't enjoying life. Now he spends his days attending commencement exercises at Columbia University and avoiding all responsibilities other than those imposed upon him by his family. His absent-minded daughter Penelope (a very funny Joan Neubauer) is a painter turned unproduced playwright, the career change sparked by the fact that years ago, a typewriter was mistakenly delivered to the doorstep. Her husband, Paul (Steve Toth), builds fireworks in the basement and erector-set models in the living room, helped by Mr. De Pinna (Jess Riddle), a boarder who showed up at the house years ago with a delivery of ice and decided to stay. The rest of the extended clan is just as wacky. Son Ed (Jacob Hulthage) works as an amateur printer, whipping out circulars containing Leon Trotsky slogans and inserting them in boxes of candy made by his wife, Essie (a delightfully vacuous Kristen Davidson). Why does Ed peddle Soviet-style propaganda in boxes of candy that he tries to sell in the neighborhood? It just seemed like a fun thing to do.
Everything the Vanderhofs do in this play is absolutely harmless, and the characters are equally harmless-with the possible exception of Donald (Da'Mon Jackson), the boyfriend of house servant Rheba. Donald is the only character in the play on government relief, and of course, he is a shuffling, obsequious black man. The characters are written in such a way by Kaufman and Hart (and staged adequately enough by Hardy) that we see them not as boobs, but as the type of close-knit, albeit loopy and idiot family we all would love to belong to-or ought to, so the myth goes.
This dynamic is sorely tested by news that Alice (an earnestly wholesome Larissa Reiss Tidwell), the only member of the clan not touched by mild insanity, is set to marry Tony Kirby (an equally wholesome Ron McCoy), the son of a wealthy industrialist. The arrival of Mr. Kirby (an immaculately anal David Y. Smith) and his wife set the stage for the country mouse vs. city mouse battle.
In the '70s, the absent-minded, let-it-all-hang-out Vanderhofs would be hippies afflicted by chronic short-term-memory loss. In the '90s, they'd be ironic Gen-X slackers. In either case, they represent what's best and worst in American politics. At their best, they represent those of us who refuse to buy into a corrupt system, who choose not to spend half of our lives crammed into fattening pens bathed in fluorescent lights. The Vanderhofs are determined to do what they want when they want -and to hell with government. As Hart described it, the point of the play is simple: “The way to live and to be happy is to just go ahead and live and not pay attention to the world.” But that same way of living represents a dangerous stream of American culture, in which the refusal to become a cog in the machine makes that machine run all the more efficiently.
The lesson of plays like You Can't Take It With You ends up sounding like quixotic, sentimental claptrap, more damaging than helpful, more depressing than hopeful. Avoid political thought; don't get caught up in social protest; just be yourself; hang the flag on holidays; believe in Washington, Lincoln and the Pledge of Allegiance; and everything else will take care of itself. Oh, and fuck off. Such escapism is the fuel of the system. It's also why those artists or individuals who manage to connect a grassroots appeal with a very potent political ideology can be effective and genuine (I'm thinking Woody Guthrie) as well as so dangerous (maybe David Duke). With great freedom comes great responsibility, and the regrettable fact in You Can't Take It With You is that the Vanderhofs' only responsibility is to themselves.
You Can't Take It With You at the Garden Grove Playhouse, 12001 Saint Mark St., Garden Grove, (714) 897-5122. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through April 17. $8-$10.