For Laughs, You Can’t Beat ‘You Can’t Take It With You’
By Doug Carroll
Photos by Jerry Bauer
“You Can’t Take It With You,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning play that opened the Ethington Theatre Series over the weekend, is every bit as entertaining as last year’s opener, the musical “The Pirates of Penzance.”
And, just as “Pirates” was bolstered by first-rate performances from several GCU alumni, the comedy by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman has a show-stealing turn by 1990 graduate Michael Hegeman. Friday night’s premiere played to a nearly sold-out theatre.
Hegeman plays Grandpa Martin Vanderhof, the tax-evading elder statesman of the endearingly dim Sycamore family, a clan that falls somewhere between eccentric and dysfunctional. For the past 35 years, Grandpa has been mostly “relaxing” in an armchair in the Sycamores’ living room, having checked out of the rat race to become a keen observer of the household’s abundant comings and goings.
There’s plenty of fodder for his wry commentary. Penny Sycamore (played by Bina Neuwirth) fashions herself a novelist after a typewriter was mistakenly delivered to the house eight years earlier. One of her adult daughters, Essie (Elizabeth Pabst), flits about the place, making no progress as a would-be ballerina. Penny’s husband, Paul (Nathan LeDeaux), and a longtime guest, Mr. De Pinna (Nathan de Laet), shoot off fireworks in the basement. And Essie’s husband, Ed (Tyler Stokey), plays “a Beethoven thing” on the xylophone ad nauseam.
It’s a strange brew, and things get even stranger when daughter Alice (Ashley Hines) announces that she has fallen for Tony (Adam Benavides), the heir to his father’s company, which employs them both. Over Tony’s protests, Alice insists it’s a mismatch of social class and it will never work. When the stuffy Kirbys drop by the Sycamores’ for dinner on the wrong evening, the Sycamores’ unique goofiness is on chaotic display.
Through it all, Grandpa dispenses his peculiar — but no less accurate — pearls of wisdom from his chair. When an agent from the Internal Revenue Service (Brad Beamon) pays a surprise visit, the back-and-forth between the two is as clever as the Abbott and Costello “Who’s on first?” routine. And when Grandpa zeroes in on the misery of the elder Kirby, it’s a chance for all of us to consider which is more important in life: family or fortune? You can’t take it with you, you know.
Alumnus Michael Kary’s performance as the Major-General was the highlight of “Pirates,” and so is Hegeman’s as Grandpa in this play. It’s hard to believe that Hegeman, 44, now an adjunct instructor at GCU, has been away from the Ethington stage for 20 years. His low-key comic timing is perfect, and he exudes warmth as the Sycamores’ resident sage. He’s irresistible in the role, in a Wilford Brimley-meets-Mister Rogers sort of way.
Hegeman is surrounded by an exceptionally strong cast. Neuwirth’s Penny is delightfully daffy, and her orchestration of a parlor game during the Kirbys’ visit is a full-on riot. The facial expressions and over-the-top sunniness of Pabst’s Essie capture the compassionate circus that is the Sycamores.
As Alice and Tony, Hines and Benavides — two of GCU’s most talented student performers — make fine lovebirds. Several smaller roles, such as the overbearing Russian dance teacher Boris Kolenkov (played by Robert Mohle) and the stern Mr. Kirby (Sam Brunner), receive spot-on readings. Newcomers Stokey, LeDeaux and Jasmine Parks (as a tipsy actress who passes out in the Sycamores’ living room) also nail their parts.
The cozy, home-sweet-home set by COFAP Assistant Dean Bill Symington makes you want to move in with the Sycamores, and the 1930s-era costuming by Nola Yergen-Jennings is splendid. Dean Claude Pensis directed this show, and his attention to detail is evident throughout.
The final three performances of “You Can’t Take It With You” will be at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday. For tickets, call the box office at 639.8880 or email [email protected]. Admission is $12 for adults, $5 for children.
Reach Doug Carroll at 639.8011 or [email protected].