You Can’t Take It With You (Curtain Players – Galena, OH)

Photo: Stephen Elliot Moore – Edited by Chuck Pennington III
“Life is kind of beautiful if you just let it come to you,” says Martin Vanderhof, the patriarch of the unconventional Sycamore family; he also states, “The world’s not so crazy – it’s the people in it!” There is a lot of wisdom in Mr. Vanderhof’s words, and the “crazy” he speaks of might just be his own family of misfits; they are the focus of the delightful classic comedy You Can’t Take It With You, currently enjoying a splendid run courtesy of Curtain Players in Gahanna, Ohio.

 

Photo: Stephen Elliot Moore – Edited by Chuck Pennington III
 

You Can’t Take It With You premiered on Broadway in 1936, ran for two years, and was adapted (and extensively rewritten) into a 1938 Academy Award-winning film by Frank Capra starring James Stewart. Written by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, the play revolves around the Sycamore family, a rather unconventional group of people that explore their hobbies with gusto but are traditionally unemployed; that is, except for Alice Sycamore (Madison Garvin Lee), the only household member with a regular job. When Alice gets serious with the boss’s son, Tony Kirby (Jack Miller), it becomes time for her family to meet her beau and his family; after all, a man doesn’t just marry a woman – he marries her family too. Think of it as a less vulgar version of Meet the Parents, the 2000 comedy film starring Ben Stiller, which owes a lot to this play. The requisite mayhem ensues as the Sycamore clan clashes with the Kirby society folk (or is it the other way around?), but the real joy is seeing how everything will play out. Martin Vanderhof, Alice’s grandfather and the wise patriarch of the household, justifies his family’s pursuit of their passions by stating, “You can’t take it with you,” referring to money (the preoccupation of the Kirby family) as well as time. His daughter writes plays, his son-in-law creates fireworks in the basement, one granddaughter is a budding (but uncoordinated) ballerina, his grandson-in-law enjoys playing with his printing press – everyone has a hobby that means something to them even though it may seem strange to outsiders.

 

Photo: Stephen Elliot Moore – Edited by Chuck Pennington III
 
The aforementioned Martin Vanderhof is played by Larry Cole as gentle, loving, understanding – essentially every quality one would want in a grandfather, but perhaps without the snakes he collects. He is matched on the other end of the spectrum by Doug Browell as Tony’s blustery father, Mr. Kirby, who says more with a scowl and glance than many performers could get across in a full page of dialogue. Mr. Cole and Mr. Browell are the two stage veterans that anchor this production, and they hold their own alongside some of the best character actors in the area in the many supporting parts of this piece.

 

Photo: Stephen Elliot Moore – Edited by Chuck Pennington III
 
Standouts in the supporting cast are Julie Emmert-Silvius as Penelope Sycamore, the playwriting matriarch of the household; Kirsten Peninger as Essie, her would-be ballerina daughter; Jeff Kemeter as Ed, Essie’s doting printer/xylophonist husband; Sean Coffman as Boris Kolenkhov, Essie’s Soviet ballet instructor; and Linda Goodwin as Mrs. Kirby, the disapproving mother of the potential groom. Each of these supporting cast members threaten to upstage each other at any moment and yet don’t; there are more than enough wacky and uncomfortable moments to go around, and these supporting players are particularly gifted at playing it all honestly without mugging, which only makes it funnier. I don’t mean light giggle funny; I’m talking laugh-out-loud funny, especially the moments when Ms. Peninger suggestively stretches and arches, blissfully unaware of how inappropriate she looks doing so.
 
Photo: Stephen Elliot Moore – Edited by Chuck Pennington III
 
Director Kate Tull has her hands full with this cast of sixteen but makes it all work. Even though the characters are often saying and doing odd things, they play it quite seriously, free of the mugging and sly glances that show that they are in on the joke, a consistent problem I find with stage comedies. Being blissfully unaware of how their eccentricities look to those around them helps every comedic moment come across to maximum effect. Another observation I had was that if the play were to be set in the present time surely most of the Sycamore family would be diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome; it seems everything that diverges from the norm nowadays needs to be labeled.

Having seen the 1938 film and a production of the play in college, I had no idea how funny the play is because it wasn’t until now that I have witnessed it being performed properly. Minor quibbles are the extended scene changes with music that sounds too dramatic for this material as well as the sound effects of the firecrackers and explosions being quite timid in impact and volume (I have heard that this has since been corrected).

 

Photo: Chuck Pennington III – Set Design: Booth Muller – Set Decoration: Kate Tull
 
Booth Muller’s set is award-worthy, with furniture and decoration extending out to the far corners of the stage (set decoration by an uncredited Ms. Tull and the cast). Somehow it never looks cramped, even when sixteen different characters are on stage all at once. It really looks like a living room of the period, though with humorous touches I don’t want to spoil by detailing here. Try to count all of the clocks on the stage, each set to a different time, a visual metaphor if ever I saw one. So much thought and care has gone into representing the interests of each of the characters in this set that it only serves to reinforce the reality of the situation; the set and its decoration is an unflinchingly honest as the characters who live there.

 

Photo: Chuck Pennington III – Set Design: Booth Muller – Set Decoration: Kate Tull
 

You Can’t Take It With You is a real gem of a play, dated only by its reference to there being forty-eight states, the presence of a rotary dial phone, and the now politically-incorrect use of the term “colored.” It makes sense that for many years this was the most-produced play in American high schools. There is a kind of optimism in the Vanderhof household free of the tinge of cynicism that seems to taint all of our entertainment nowadays. Even if you’ve seen the Oscar-winning Frank Capra film, you owe it to yourself to see the original play. The innocently naughty humor and unabashed honesty of the material is brilliantly presented in Curtain Players’ production; this isn’t one to miss.

*** 3/4 out of **** (yes, that’s 3.75 out of 4)

You Can’t Take It With You continues through to April 3rd in the Curtain Players Theatre located at 5691 Harlem Road in Galena (a little over half an hour outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://www.curtainplayers.org/season/2015-2016/5_cant_take.php
 

Photo: Chuck Pennington III – Set Design: Booth Muller – Set Decoration: Kate Tull
 

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Coney Island Christmas (Gallery Players – Columbus, OH)

People are so sensitive these days about offending other’s religious beliefs, but such wasn’t the case if we look back a few decades. It wasn’t out of the ordinary to see a nativity play within a regular school once upon a time, and it is such a play that causes such a conundrum in Donald Marguilies’s Coney Island Christmas, currently being performed by Gallery Players at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer- (left to right) Laurie Alexander (Shirley), Brian A. Belair (Mr. Abromowitz), Rose Clubok (young Shirley), and Kate Willis (Mrs. Abromowitz)
 

Coney Island Christmas is a memory play based on the autobiographic writings of Grace Paley. The piece is narrated by Shirley (Laurie Alexander, so caring and gentle) to her great-granddaughter, Clara (Nora Butter, a little pistol if ever there was one). In it, she tells of a time in 1935 when she was growing up in Brooklyn and was known for her loud voice; it’s that distinctive instrument that gets her, a Jewish girl (the younger Shirley is played by Rose Clubok, feisty and determined) born to immigrants, cast in the plum role of Jesus Christ in her school’s Christmas play! Needless to say her parents have mixed feelings about her casting causing friction; should Shirley be allowed to perform, fulfilling her desire to perform, or should she be forbidden from participating because she is Jewish and the part does not line up with the religious beliefs her parents are trying to instill in her?

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Rick Cohen (Mr. Hilton) and Laura Crone (Mrs. Glacé)
 
The aforementioned Ms. Alexander (Shirley), Ms. Butter (Clara), and Ms. Clubok (young Shirley) are standouts in the cast, as are Brian A. Belair as Mr. Abromowitz (Shirley’s father), Kate Willis as Mrs. Abromowitz (Shirley’s mother), Rick Cohen as Mr. Hilton (the drama teacher), and Laura Crone as Mrs. Glacé (the French teacher). Mr. Belair and Ms. Willis are strong as Shirley’s parents, but it is clear that they love their daughter and believe they are doing what’s right for her; the scenes between Mr. Belair and Ms. Clubok are particularly poignant; Mr. Cohen is perfect as the emphatic amateur playwright/drama teacher, quite jolly and matter-of-fact with his delivery; and Ms. Crone has an impressive French accent and measured way of speaking that is eerily accurate; Ms. Crone is so good that I completely didn’t recognize her from Evolution’s Zanna, Don’t! from last month until I read her bio.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Bobby Belair (Henry)
 
Bobby Belair is a surprise delight as Henry, who doesn’t appear to utter a word until he emerges as an angel in the play-within-a-play at the end. The whole Christmas play at the end is a riot as it is apparent that the staff has taken some liberties with the story and added in a few surprise characters, which I won’t spoil by naming them here. What’s notable about both the Thanksgiving and Christmas plays (aside from how hilariously they have been rewritten) within Coney Island Christmas is how they are performed quite intentionally flat and awkwardly by the cast, a great touch by co-directors April Olt and Sonda Staley.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
You don’t have to be Jewish or Christian or even religious at all to enjoy Coney Island Christmas; it’s very cute and sweet but also has some genuine laugh out loud moments in it. The play runs for one act at around seventy-five minutes, is family friendly, and ultimately quite a nice holiday play more about the importance of family and honoring one’s background than anything else.

*** out of ****

Coney Island Christmas continues through to November 20th in the Roth-Resler Theater at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus located at 1125 College Avenue, and more information can be found at http://columbusjcc.org/cultural-arts/gallery-players/

Brighton Beach Memoirs (Gallery Players – Columbus, OH)

Growing up is so awful that it’s a good thing we have to go through it only once. The process is only seen as poignant in retrospect, as the pain and embarrassment is easier to overlook in the rearview mirror. Gallery Players is now presenting Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical tale of youth, Brighton Beach Memoirs, as the opening show of their 67th season, and adolescence has really been depicted so candidly – or as endearingly funny.

Brighton Beach Memoirs premiered on Broadway in 1983 and was a hit, running over three years, and was then adapted into a rather stale and miscast film in 1986. The play takes place in Brooklyn in the fall of 1937 during The Great Depression and is about the Jerome household, a Jewish family encompassing Kate and Jack Jerome; their two sons, Eugene and Stanley; Kate’s widowed sister, Blanche; and Blanche’s two daughters, Nora and Laurie. Most of the action revolves around Eugene Morris Jerome, a fifteen-year-old who is dealing with puberty and the ever-changing struggles of those around him, covering situations as diverse as unemployment, death, love, and decades-old grudges that finally come to the fore.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Neil Kalef (Eugene)
 
This play can only work with a Eugene that is of the right age and able to have frank discussions about sex and the difficult changes boys go through at that age; this production has Neil Kalef in the role, who is just the right age, has the slightly sour attitude commiserate with being ignored by his family, and is free from embarrassment saying lines that would make most teens blush and look away. Mr. Kalef is utterly believable as Eugene, and his asides to the audience are as honest as they are funny.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Susan Gellman (Blanche), Felise Chernoff (Kate), and Jenna Rodier (Laurie)
 
There isn’t a bad performance in the play, but special credit should also go to Susan Gellman as Blanche, Jennifer Geiger as Nora, and Rick A. Holt as Jack. Ms. Gellman plays rather meek and withdrawn extremely well, and her transition to being a stronger parent and more assertive in taking control of her and her daughters’ lives is revelatory; she’s heartbreaking while reading a letter from a potential suitor, and the scene she shares with Ms. Geiger in which she finally takes charge as a mother is electrifying. Ms. Geiger as her daughter Nora is present and reacts naturally to everything around her; she’s believably excited at the prospect of a career on Broadway and firmly stubborn to get her way.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Rick A. Holt (Jack)
 
Rick A. Holt is extremely strong as Jack, the patriarch of the family, always the one sought out for advice and working several jobs to make ends meet. Mr. Holt has a brassy swiftness about him that makes Jack both intimidating to his family as well as the kind of guy you know they want to please. When he tells his son Stanley (Phil Cunningham, who is just right as the ne’er-do-well oldest son, and whose scenes with Mr. Kalef as his younger brother Eugene work because of their chemistry) that there is nothing that Stanley could do that he as his father couldn’t forgive him for, it’s enough to make you wish that every father was as honest and direct as Mr. Holt is as Jack. Felise Chernoff as his wife Kate is no slouch either, perfect as the nagging mother whose demeanor contrasts with the love she obviously feels for her family. Ms. Chernoff had more than her share of stumbles during the opening night performance, but I’m sure that had more to do with nerves than any lack of talent or preparation.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Neil Kalef (Eugene), Jenna Rodier (Laurie), Felise Chernoff (Kate), Jennifer Geiger (Nora), and Susan Gellman (Blanche)
 
Set designer Jon Baggs has created a set that qualifies it as another character in the play, complete with a living and dining room and stairs leading to a second level where the brothers and their cousins share separate rooms. It looks like people really live there, and such care has been taken to make it appear functional and appropriately period. Director Mark Mann keeps things moving and making sense, not allowing any scene to bake too long; he really gets the point of the play and understands how to make the actors work together as a family.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Phil Cunningham (Stanley), Susan Gellman (Blanche), Rick A. Holt (Jack), Felise Chernoff (Kate), Jenna Rodier (Laurie), and Jennifer Geiger (Nora)
 
You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy this production, and I enjoyed learning a bit about the culture. Most everyone will recognize characteristics of people in the play as being similar to some people in their own family, and there are definitely scenes that any male will understand and probably smile about to themselves. Some of the dialogue and situations may keep Brighton Beach Memoirs from being suitable to anyone under the age of thirteen, but boy would having seen this play at that age have helped me realize that I wasn’t the only one dealing with such issues.

***/ out of ****

Brighton Beach Memoirs continues through to November 1st in the Roth-Resler Theater at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus located at 1125 College Avenue, and more information can be found at http://columbusjcc.org/cultural-arts/gallery-players/