things about stuff
by Daryl H. Miller
“That may seem a little strange to you,” says a man to his unexpected guests, who have just entered a living room to find a couple staging an impromptu ballet, a woman artist painting the portrait of a half-naked male model, a would-be musician pounding away on a xylophone and a grown man playing with Tinkertoys.
Strange? Yes. Silly? Yes? Fun?
This is just one of the deliriously comic scenes the University of California, Riverside, theater department’s production of the Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman classic, “You Can’t Take It with You.” It’s a show about good ol’ American values. And the menagerie described above is a good ol’ American family — though a little more exuberant than most.
The 1936 script, which won a Pulitzer Prize, is one of the gems of the theater. Yet as significant as this script is to the history of drama, it hasn’t aged well. Many of the jokes — such as extended jabs at the Russian Revolution — fall flat these days. And its portrayals of Russians and blacks are decidedly stereotypical and even a bit racist to modern sensibilities.
Still its basic charms remain intact, and the UC Riverside troupe makes the most of them.
The key issue of the play is whether what ultimately fulfills a person in life is financial and social success for all-out, go-for-the-gusto happiness. The different stances are embodied in two families: the Vanderhofs, described above, and the Kirbys, who are wealthy but whose existence is destitute of enjoyment.
The two clans cross paths because the daughter from the poor-but-happy family falls in love with the son of the rich-but-unfulfilled family. While sparks fly between the young couple, a different kind of sparks fly between the families. And a lot of fireworks go off (figuratively and literally — one of the characters is forever setting off firecrackers). Yet everyone comes around to the same way of thinking in the end.
Michael Fuller, who has worked in the Los Angeles theater, is the show’s guest director. He draws out both the earnestness and the humor I the script, so that the audience finds itself dabbing at its eyes as well as slapping its knees. Fuller is especially proficient as setting up good sight gags. An example: the father of the family, who makes firecrackers, discusses with his assistant the design of a rocket he holds in his hand — while the two of them smoke like chimneys and threaten to accidentally set the thing off indoors.
The cast of students and community members lend the show considerable talent. Franklin Chambers endears as the patriarch of the Vanderhof clan (the poor-but-happy ones). His portrayal of a grandfather is as warm and comfortable as the worn cardigan he wears. He’s everyone’s grandpa rolled into one.
Other outstanding performances come from Arizona Brooks as the radiant young woman in love; Tracy Davis as her sister, a bumbling ballerina who’s always jetéing across the living room instead of walking; Colleen Perkins as the eccentric but wise mother of these two; Eric R. Wolf as the father who sometimes acts more like one of the children; and Dimitri Christy as the dancer sister’s high-spirited ballet master.
The elaborate set for the Vanderhof living room, by UC Riverside faculty member Raynette Halvorsen Smith, perfectly suits the family that lives there. Smith exactly recreates the all-American living room of the 1930s, back in those glorious days when even simple homes were ornamented with hand-carved wooden mouldings around the doorways and windows. She has decorated the set with cheery colors and the schlumpy but comfortable furniture one would expect to be owned by such a family.
The costumes, by faculty member Marc Langlois, are sumptuous, and they communicate a great deal about the character wearing them. The daughter in love wears a floor-length gown of shimmering blue for a big date with her rich, charming beau. The dancing sister humorously overdresses for a dance lesson in a chiffon tutu that looks like it belongs in “Swan Lake.”
The production provides an altogether delightful evening of theater. The play is a bit of fluff with a surprisingly solid center. Its moral is spoken by the grandfather after he learns confidentially from the ballet master that the dancer daughter will never be successful in that field. He ponders this for a moment and then shrugs it off, saying, “Well, as long as she’s having fun . . .”
That’s exactly what the audience is having, too.
“You Can’t Take It with You” continues with performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and a 2:30 p.m. presentation Sunday in the University Theater on the UCR campus.
Daryl H. Miller holds a master’s degree in theater and has written entertainment news for several Southern California newspapers.
© 2016 arizona brooks creations, llc