By Dr. Anton Anderssen
Now on stage at Players’ Guild of Dearborn is the American comedy YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU. This play won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, subsequently it was adapted for the screen and won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director.
The title is based on the idiom “you can’t take it with you.” This phrase dates from the early nineteenth century. Frederick Marryat used it in Masterman Ready (1841): “He was very fond of money; but that they said was all the better, as he could not take it away with him when he died.” The expression gained even wider currency when George Kaufman and Moss Hart used it.
The story was particularly helpful in building public morale in the Depression Era. People were broke and miserable; the play encourages people to believe that being wealthy would beget an even worse plight, and furthermore, materialism is just simply bad. From an anthropological stance, it certainly supports the values held by many millennials. The main focus is on a wacky, harmless family called the Sycamores – presided over by Grandpa Vanderhof – where everyone does as he or she pleases within the happy madhouse.
In Depression-era 1936, many of America’s unemployed travelled to California hoping to get work, but the local police chief posted guards at main entrance points blocking the “undesirables” – this was illegal and later stopped. This created a harsh reality for America’s poor: the message clearly was “You are not welcome here.”
Nick Szczerba stars in the leading role of Grandpa Vanderhof. From the very beginning, he stood out as the most talented actor on stage. When he spoke it was like poetry – his rhythm and cadence were mesmerizing. He could have said anything and it would woo the audience. What I particularly liked was his message of hospitality, and as a patron of the theatre, I truly felt welcome in his “home.” He embodied hospitality in its truest essence, which made the stories of strangers coming for a visit and winding up staying for years quite believable.
Julie Ballantyne Brown plays perfectly Penelope Sycamore. I really liked this character. They say when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. When a typewriter accidentally shows up at the Sycamore manor, Penelope begins writing plays. That is something on my bucket list [not a typewriter showing up accidentally] and Julie inspired me to get this on my goal list for the coming year. She is highly poised and well spoken.
Rebekah Preiss stars radiantly as Alice Sycamore. She is gorgeous, articulate, and has an adorable figure. She makes those period pieces so magnificently tailored for the cast model-worthy. What a beautiful smile and innocent presence she gives to this performance!
D J Schneider is the irresistible stud-muffin who portrays Wall Street heir Tony Kirby. He gives a swoon-worthy performance as Prince Charming – willing to marry down in order to find the right damsel to rescue. But in this case, the damsel doesn’t want to be rescued – she’s rather comfortable in the home that values hospitality over accumulation of wealth. Schneider has classic good looks, is well groomed, and looks completely at home when wearing a tuxedo. He’s certainly the boy you want to take home to mother.
Kaitlyn Cross was delightful as Essie Carmichael, the ballerina in waiting who never gives up. I love her attitude. Cross sets a good example for all of us: follow your dreams no matter what obstacles lie before you. She remained in character during the intermission when she was pushing her home-made desserts. She has spunk – and Cross nailed the part. The words “nailed” and “cross” usually don’t evoke a sense of fun when used in the same sentence, but it works in this context.
Jacob Burke was adorable as Ed Carmichael; he came off as sweet and wholesome. Too bad he was so misunderstood. He has the innocence that makes you want to take him under your wings and give him an all-day ride pass at a carnival. His curly hair gives him a playful, fun to be around look – kind of like a little boy Shirley Temple that you just instantly love.
Tom Downey as Paul Sycamore and David Wood as Mr. De Pinna personify the Peter Pans who just want to have fun. Boys will be boys, and boys like their toys. In this case, it just happens to be explosives that can destroy half a neighborhood. They pair of blokes work very well together as they blow up everything around them. I am loathe to give Mr. Wood points for modeling that I enthusiastically gave Rebekah Preiss, but Wood (Vice President of The Players’ Guild of Dearborn) does look kind of hot in a sort of twisted way.
Kristen Campbell as Rheba and Josh Beurer as Donald have great chemistry as the domestic help. I assume they are domestic help – it’s possible they are part of the group of people who just show up one day and decide to stay, due to The Sycamores’ hospitality. These people are the salt of the earth; they are trustworthy and ready to help at a moments’ notice. I like people like that. They bring a sense of sanity to an otherwise warped household.
Matt Van Houten is magnificent as Boris Kolenkhov – the Russian who laments the Bolshevik revolution. Together with Sebastian Adams as The Grand Duchess Olga Katrina they help us remember the splendor of the Romanov Dynasty. Of course, it was splendor for the aristocracy, but a bit uncomfortable for the millions of people starving in Russia during the reign of Nicholas II. I really liked Van Houten’s voice – it sounded aristocratic and cultured. I have never heard him sing, but I envision him being able to raise the rafters with a soaring aria.
Bill McCloskey as Mr. Anthony Kirby Sr. and Linda Mosley as Mrs. Miriam Kirby were classy as the wealthy parents who came to pay a visit to the Sycamores. They reminded me of the film “The King’s Speech” when George VI and Queen Consort Elizabeth came to visit the vocal instructor, and were invited to dinner. The Kirby’s were very gracious until the lunatic decided to engage in an impromptu attack, bless their hearts. They played the parts regally.
Adam Lynch and Conor Nicholl performed their roles excellently as stalkers. Why can’t I have men that good looking peeping into my windows?
Everyone has their favorite drunk who crashes on the sofa for periods of time. I know I do. Patricia Laframboise has that “Aunt Bee” turned “The Toddy Stricken Queen Mother” character tuned precisely.
Daniel Bartrum was delightful as the government official paid Grandpa a visit. Bartrum was even more delightful when he channeled Bernie Sanders and handed out wads of cash during the intermission. There’s nothing better than a good looking man who just hands you money. That’s why I said “Yes” in a heartbeat when my own version of Tony Kirby asked me to marry him. People might think I’m just a dumb blond, but like Dolly Parton says, I know I’m not stupid. I also know I’m not a blond.
The part of the story line that perplexes me is how Grandpa got all his money – enough to support anyone who happened to join his tribe. In the play, he says he has earned $3000 to $4000 a year since 1901. The average salary in 1901 was $449.80 annually. Grandpa was earning nine times more than the average person, and he didn’t seem to be working very hard. In 1936, when the play is set, the average cost of a new house was $3,925.00, so he was earning a shipload of money if he could buy a house every year. Why were there no paper trails of his wages? Consider as of May 2019, the U.S. median home price was $315,000. Who makes $315,000 per year? A drug dealer does, and after 1919 crystal meth became very easy to make. Typewriters don’t just show up one day, however, tweakers do barter for candy using anything not bolted down. And there was something suspicious about that high energy, twirling ballerina. My hunch is those explosions we kept hearing, certainly could also have been meth labs exploding, and it offers a plausible explanation why people were so freaking happy in that house, if not a bit delusional. I’ve heard of people showing up at a crack house and staying for years. Meth wasn’t outlawed until the 1970s, and we don’t know what the ingredients were in that candy Ed Carmichael was delivering. A lot of people seemed to really like that “candy”. Kitty Carlisle, who got married in 1946 to this show’s playwright – Moss Hart, often spoke of her husband. She said this show was based on his own childhood. Hart was a manic/depressive who tried various drugs to snap him out of his low tides. Whether he used puppy uppers or not is unknown, but he died from a heart attack at age 57 which could have been amphetamine-induced. Irrespective, there certainly was a lot of crazy going on at his home during his childhood.
I was thrilled to see Chris Boudreau’s name as the president of The Guild. I remember him a decade ago when he was just starting out. He has come a long way, and grown in his craft exponentially. Boudreau told me, “We are so proud to be able to say this is the Players Guild of Dearborn’s 92nd season. Not many institutions can claim that. We renovated our theater 6 years ago and this year our theater will turn 70. That too is remarkable when you think about how disposable old buildings can be. We are excited about this season specifically because not only does it include some great American classic stories like You Can’t Take it With You, Anything Goes, and The Glass Menagerie, but also some new stuff like Laughing Stock or the just-off-Broadway Tony-award-winning show A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. We are thrilled to be able to be one of the first theaters in the area to perform this show. It’s a season that is family friendly. What a great way to escape the craziness of life, and enjoy the fun of community theater.”
Each opening night, Players’ Guild of Dearborn gets to showcase its legendary hospitality with a spectacular afterglow. It was an honor to run into Paul Bruce at the afterglow. I was anxious to learn what shows he plans to direct in the coming year. Bruce is the king of Down River directors, much like John Sartor in the west, and Michael Gravame in the north. Everything these three kings touch turns to gold.
For tickets and information, kindly visit www.playersguildofdearborn.org
Be sure to subscribe to Anton Anderssen’s articles by filling out the box at the top of this page.
Photos courtesy of Players’ Guild of Dearborn