Despite how much this revival of “You Can’t Take It With You” has going for it, every single review begins the same way: The writer concedes that it’s an antiquated play, that everyone assumes it’s too old-fashioned to be relevant nowadays, but that this production’s team has done a bang-up job (which means good, contrary to how it sounds (from now on let’s agree it means bad, like banged up) (change approved)) to bring it into the 21st century. It’s actually extremely annoying. All these writers (getting paid, ffs) follow this same trite and tired formula, as if they have to apologize for the play being old. So ageist! It’s also silly. You don’t see people apologizing for Shakespeare. And you’re probably saying, but Shakespeare is still relevant today. Well so is this! No apologies!
ANYWAY. YCTWITHYOU tells the story of the jubilantly wacky Sycamore family, with its wacky playwright of a mother, its wacky firework maker of a father, its wacky wannabe prima ballerina of a daughter, her wacky husband, and the not-at-all-wacky-or-hey-maybe-she-actually-is-like-her-family other daughter who just wants to marry up, plus all the surrounding characters, including the grandfather played by James Earl Jones, who I think is written wacky but JEJ can never play wacky so he still kind of seemed regal and wise even though he was probably talking crazy. The story concerns the straight-laced office-secretary (working girl!) daughter Alice, who wants to marry her boss’s son Tony Kirby but is beyond fearful and anxious about their wildly different families - and as we see in all their insane glory, rightly so.
Obviously, the casting is vital in YTAYKAT, because the family’s wackiness can either work and make you fall in love with all of them, or it can annoy the piss out of you. Luckily, here, the producers got everything right. This hilarious band of fun crazies is led by Penny, the matriarch, played by the consistent and consistently hilarious Kristine Nielson (who was deservedly nominated for a 2013 Tony for “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” in a super competitive year). Penny writes various sorts of plays that never are produced or really even read, and we learn later that she fell into this ‘profession’ when a typewriter was mistakenly delivered to her house. Penny’s husband Paul makes fireworks and crackers and smoke and all sorts of things that blow up in the basement at really inopportune times. Paul is played by Mark Linn-Baker, or the non-Balki lead from “Perfect Strangers”, one of my childhood mainstays. I didn’t know that Mark was in this show, and when I moved to an empty seat in the front row (from my last row of the top balcony seat, thank you very much) I kind of gasped when I realized who it was! So fun. Anyway, yeah so he sets stuff on fire in their house, with the help of his friend Mr. De Pinna, who models for a painting in Roman garb at one point and looks exactly like Christoph Waltz in it.
The best part of this production is the characterization of the daughter Essie, played by freaking thief Annaleigh Ashford, who steals every single thing she’s in. Essie yearns to be a top ballerina, and she studies with a Russian tutor very frequently, but she’s terrible, awful, no good very bad. How do we know how bad she is? Because regardless of what is happening in the play, she is dancing. When she walks to the kitchen to make her candies that she sells, she freaking leaps. Or jetes, I don't know I only took ballet when I was 3. When she is listening to someone talking in the living room, she is practicing her (really difficult) jumps in one spot until someone stops her. When the fancy Kirby family comes to dinner, the elegant elonge' position she takes on the floor by Mrs. Kirby will make you cry. Her ridiculousness, which extends to her facial expressions as well as her physicality, is the best part of the play, along with her husband Ed, played with matching ridiculousness by Will Brill, with his subtle but hysterical faces constantly diverting your attention from the main action to him.
Alice, the daughter embarrassed by all of her family’s shenanigans, is well cast with Rose Byrne in her Broadway debut. I saw YAKANUT in previews, and in the front row I could see a tiny bit of nervousness that seemed like hyper-awareness of what she was supposed to be doing, but overall she was fantastic. Alice really loves Tony Kirby but does not have faith in either of the families’ ability to accept and be accepted. Tony is well played by Fran Kranz, which sounds like one of the phrases Kim Jong-Il would say a lot in “Team America” but he’s really an actor who was in Joss Whedon’s magical “Much Ado About Nothing” in 2012.
Tony tries to convince Alice that they’ll be fine, that the families will get along. Of course we see things go to total shit because the Sycamores are crazy (but super fun) and the Kirbys are kind of awful and stodgy and seem like they would yell at you to sit up straighter. We are treated to seriously insane scenes when the two families do try to socialize. They actually end up in jail, naturally being arrested while the basement of fireworks is going off accidentally. It’s the kind of thing where you are sitting with your eyes bugging out not believing what is happening in front of you but also just totally loving the crap out of it.
Oh, why are they arrested? Well, Essie’s doofus of a husband fancies himself a typesetter or something, and he prints phrases that he likes on the wrappers of Essie’s candy that he delivers to customers. Turns out he likes phrases that sound like terrorist and communist propaganda so the FBI has been following the family. It doesn’t help that Grandpa Earl Jones hasn’t paid income tax in more than 20 years. Why not? Because he doesn’t trust that the government would use it well. I freaking love Grandpa. And agree. Grandpa is the voice of wisdom and gets some wonderful monologues about money and greed and of course says the title of the show in one of these so everyone in the audience drinks.
There is some surreal randomness even above the randomness of all the family members’ antics. Elizabeth Ashley appears only in Act 3 to play a former Russian royal who now works as a waitress and wants to cook the family dinner. I was like okay monster man. Very unnecessary but hey, you get to see Elizabeth Ashley onstage. Also Johanna Day plays an actress reading one of Penny’s scripts (I guess someone did read them) but she is a drunk and passes out. It’s also totally unnecessary but it’s worth it because she is still super drunk during the FBI raid, adding to that scene’s unbeatable amount of outrageousness.
YAKSCOK has a happy ending, of course, because it’s a comedy even though there are lots of snakes onstage. You kind of want to tell Alice to calm down as I’m pretty sure every single family has some Sycamore qualities, but you get why she’s anxious. Fortunately, she realizes she’s lucky to have such a loving family, despite its eccentricities. The pretty people get married and Essie keeps dancing and it’s all just a pile of smiles. The end.