If all you ever knew about family came solely from watching plays, you’d have a wide range of models to choose from. On the less felicitous side is Medea, Hamlet, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Ghosts, The Seagull, The Homecoming, ’night, Mother, most of O’Neill, Miller, Albee and Nicky Silver, right up to the pill-popping profanities of August: Osage County. On the light and joyful side, you have … well, ahem, there’s … let’s just settle on You Can’t Take It with You. Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s 1936 paean to a freethinking, high-spirited, bohemian clan doesn’t argue that the Sycamores are any less dysfunctional than most households, but it depicts their screwball chaos as flowing from love.
Almost a photonegative take on Hart’s grim, poverty-stricken immigrant upbringing, the Sycamore ménage is a madcap tribe of thrill-seeking amateurs. Mother Penny (Kristine Nielsen) hammers away at unfinished plays. Father Paul (Mark-Linn Baker) tests new fireworks in the cellar with the childlike Mr. DePinna (Patrick Kerr). Daughter Essie (Annaleigh Ashford) aspires to the ballet corps: She cannot cross from kitchen to stairs without a galumphing pas de chat. And then there’s Grandpa (James Earl Jones), who has cheerfully retired from the rat race to enjoy his pet snakes and commencement ceremonies at nearby Columbia University. You get the idea. Everybody is chasing his or her bliss without shame or judgment.
But consider daughter Alice (Rose Byrne), unlucky for being a hobbyless normal person – the Zeppo to a pack of Grouchos, Harpos and Chicos. Alice loves her zany folks but finds their bohemian ways a bar to marriage with the boss’s son, Tony Kirby (Fran Kranz). When the starchy Mr. and Mrs. Kirby (Byron Jennings, Johanna Day) show up at the Sycamores’ for a dinner party on the wrong night, the culture clash is immediate and howlingly funny.
Hart and Kaufman’s Pulitzer Prize–winning script – a three-act jamboree of sight gags, slow-boil jokes and straight-faced quirk – marks the zenith of 20th-century American comedy. The sprawling cast, concise wit and big-hearted sentiment mixed with gimlet-eyed satire – playwrights haven’t been able to top it for decades, resorting instead to victim art and the low-hanging fruit of sarcasm and dysfunctional melodramatics. So savor the sweet and zany delight while you can.
Masterful as the blueprint may be, a weak ensemble and tin-eared direction can still screw it up. But this revival (the first in more than 30 years) is stuffed with the city’s finest comic talents. Where to begin? Nielsen’s bobble-headed, goggle-eyed dithering draws laughs before, during and after lines. Ashford’s ballet maneuvers are the best physical comedy Broadway has seen since Katie Finneran drunkenly flounced away with Promises, Promises. In a less flashy comic role, Jones twinkles disarmingly as he slips in a sly put-down or pearl of wisdom. Will Brill finds an amusingly fey and excitable side to Ed, Essie’s xylophone-playing husband. Besides the aforementioned pros, marvelous Reg Rogers lopes around the periphery as a raffish Russian dance teacher, while Julie Halston stops the show as a dipsomaniacal stage hack whom Penny brings home. Scott Ellis conducts the escalating craziness with style and grace on David Rockwell’s perfectly cluttered, revolving living-room set. The Sycamores will welcome literally anyone into the family. It’s hard to resist running away to join their circus.
David Cote is theater editor and chief drama critic of Time Out New York.