I love the theater for one reason above all: Those moments I get to witness an inspired performance by a gifted actor. I will forgive a show nearly any flaw if I can watch a person on stage transcend the bounds of the rational world to create some indefinable magic, for even a few minutes, some artistic alchemy that lingers in memory, impossible to forget.
The lush new production of You Can't Take It With You boasts at least a half-dozen such turns, brimming to near-bursting from a piece that juggles slapstick and drama and somehow manages to keep them both alight.
You Can't Take It With You might seem an unlikely vehicle for transportment. One could be forgiven for assuming that a revival of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's well-worn '30s comedy is yet another sign of Broadway's imagination death march, as new works that might challenge or provoke are passed over for safe retreads that were less than essential in their first incarnations.
Yet You Can't Take It With You turns out to be the perfect work for our times. A clarion call to pursue more fulfilling lives, it grounds its festival of comic tours de force in radical philosophy.
Hart and Kaufman's Pulitzer Prize winner tells the story of a typical week in the life of an epically unrepressed family -- but during this particular week, its sole earthbound member catches, abandons and is forced to embrace true love. (There's also the small matter of threats to life and liberty, a sudden raid and a mass arrest.)
The play's message is delivered lightly: Why weigh down your days with duties that fill you with dread? Why not instead dedicate yourself to savoring every gift life has given you? The bearer of that message, a man who has quit the rat race to pursue potentially ridiculous activities that give him pleasure, is here portrayed by national treasure James Earl Jones -- who as the heart, brain and conscience of the piece, would seem to be embodying the playwrights' descent into foolish frivolity. But the foolishness of You Can't Take It With You borders on the sublime.
A tale whose myriad characters are awash in goodness and uncynical affection would seem a hard sell in our increasingly dire era. Yet the choreographed precision of the play's silliness makes resistance futile. Everywhere one looks one finds delights -- from the vocal gymnastics of Kristine Nielsen's cheery creative striver and Reg Rogers' operatically opinionated instructor to the physical acrobatics of Annaleigh Ashford, her human-Slinky spouse (an alarmingly funny Will Brill), and Julie Halston's beyond-belief houseguest. (In any other production Halston's scenes would steal the show, but with YCTIWY's embarrassment of riches each performer fully owns the spotlight. Only Elizabeth Ashley, leaning a bit heavily on her lines, fails to keep pace with the production's bounding forward momentum.)
For all the lunacy, You Can't Take It With You has a pervasive sweetness, a tenderness nicely conveyed by tested lovers Rose Byrne and Fran Kranz -- who, as their mismatched families come crashing together, are both propelled to stand up to their fates at last. And the ingenious color-blind casting of Jones as the play's guiding light helps defuse some of the discomfort audiences will feel watching African-American actors in servile positions. Within this warm-hued home, there genuinely seems to be a place at the table for everyone.
An antidote to the world's increasingly harsh realities, You Can't Take It With You delivers more than relief. Its portrait of abandon -- defined by Merriam-Webster as "a feeling or attitude of wild or complete freedom" -- invites us to heed its individualist family and open ourselves up to happiness. For two fleet hours it allows us to forget everything except what it means to lose ourselves in joy.