It creaks, but so does a comfortable old porch swing. And it's altogether improbable; but, then, so are "King Lear" and "Animal Crackers." Main thing is: "You Can't Take It With You," Kaufman and Hart's unruly and seemingly indestructible 1936 farce, which returned to Broadway last night at the Plymouth, retains most of its charm and humor in this star-sprinkled production. If the cast of 19 is not precisely a perfectly-knit ensemble - why, that's the very essence of a work as nuttily complex as a Rube Goldberg contraption.
Ellis Rabb, who staged a fine APA revival in the mid-'60s, has directed it this time, too, and winningly, particularly in the quaint, but not campy passages dealing with the tangled romance between the lovesick Alice Sycamore, enchantingly set forth by Maureen Anderman, and her ardent suitor, Tony Kirby (Nicolas Surovy), son of the head of the Wall St. firm where Alice is employed. For this is, of course, the warmest of all the K&H collaborations, and remarkably so in view of Kaufman's abhorrence of love scenes.
Jason Robards, bespectacled and silver-haired, plays Grandpa Vanderhof, patriarch of the compatibly screwy household that includes, in addition to his daughter, Penelope (she has been pecking out plays ever since a typewriter was delivered by mistake eight years earlier), and her husband, Paul, who invents fireworks in the cellar with the help of their onetime milkman who decided to stay on, the following loonies: the gawky and balletically inclined Essie (Carol Androsky), the Sycamores' other daughter, and her amiably vacant spouse, Ed (Christopher Foster), who plays both the xylophone and printing press on which his blithely reels off Trotsky slogans, along with two black servants - Rheba, the cook (Rosetta LeNoire), and the household's handyman, Donald (Arthur French), whose only complaint is that he has to go pick up his relief check instead of having it delivered.
The already mad assemblage is further unhinged (actors were a dime a dozen in 1936) by visitations from Essie's Russian dance instructor, Boris (James Coco, in the evening's funniest performance); Olga (Colleen Dewhurst), a former grand duchess now a Childs waitress hoping to make it to Schrafft's; Tony's parents (Richard Woods and Meg Mundy), who arrive for dinner a night early; a drunken actress (Alice Drummond) Penny has picked up for one of her plays; an IRS man puzzled at Grandpa's stubborn refusal to pay 23 years' back taxes, and by a trio of G-men drawn there by Ed's inflammatory leaflets.
It's a mulligan stew of a play that makes little sense but remains buoyant due to the writers' high spirits throughout, in place of the conventional, snappy second-act curtain line (the play is in three acts), there is a basement fireworks explosion of sufficient force to devastate any household but this one.
Robards cuts a properly bening figure as Grandpa, who up and quit the business world 35 years before to relax and enjoy life. His lecture to the stuffy senior Kirby is in the actor's best light style, Elizabeth Wilson plays the dotty Penelope with flair, but has allowed herself - perhaps even seen to it - to look too soignee, right up to her frizzy hairdo, more modish-looking than silly.
Dewhurst, who doesn't appear until the final act, is indeed imposing as the grand duchess who makes a formidable advance on the kitchen to whip up a stack of blintzes. Surovy performs well enough, but lacks something of the innocent air one associates with Alice's suitor. But when the two glide about the room to a recording of "These Foolish Things," the Vanderhof household is in tune. Jack Dodson is a bit bland as Paul, and Bill McCutcheon gives a standardized comic performance as his helper.
James Tilton has designed an excellent period set, as cluttered as the household it complements - a room filled with bric-a-brac, and its walls covered with old oval portrait photos, paintings, and various oddities.
"You Can't Take It With You" shows its age, but engagingly so. It both cheers and amuses us for reasons that are sometimes hard to fathom. See it, by all means, and stay put for the last curtain call with the entire cast holding hands and giving out with a full chorus of "Goodnight, Sweetheart" to end a sweetheart of an evening.
The 30's are occasionally conceived as some kind of golden age on Broadway. They were not. The popular plays of the period were either heavy-breathing melodramas or mechanical toys posing as comedies.
A perfect example of the latter is You Can't Take It With You by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, which was revived at the Plymouth Theater last night with what is customarily called an all-star cast.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning play is about a moderately rich and excessively eccentric family who decide to take a hedonistic view of life and succeed in convincing a rich man that their amiable lifestyle was totally relevant for 1936. For all I know - or care - it was.
The lovability of everyone - even the sour, old money-grubbing capitalists - is sickening. These people don't have a mean bone in their bodies - which as, dramatically speaking, they are virtually invertebrates is not precisely surprising.
Everyone is permitted his whims - be they for playwrighting, fireworks or ballet dancing - and these whims are whimsical. The wit is as totally artificial as the situations are as totally contrived. The corncob humors and the terrifying complacency is - to put it plainly - obnoxious.
It is 1936 - the world is about to go up in flames, half of America is starving, and these idiots are blathering how lovely life is if you take it easy, and let it come to you. Even the black servant and her boyfriend, naturally on relief, are happy. There is even a happy Grand Duchess left over from the Russian revolution and now working in the Automat.
The level of the play's contrivance and the mendacity of its writing is demonstrated time and time again during a seemingly interminable evening. However let me pick one - I think typical - incident.
The daughter of the house - supposedly the one good apple in a barrel of loonies - has fallen in love with her boss' son. His stuffy family - resplendent in tuxedos - descends upon the nuts on the wrong night. Misunderstanding! Chaos slowly erupts! Of course there is no food to serve the unexpected stuffies - so the nuts have to do something quickly.
An emissary is dispatched to pick up frankfurters - a more or less reasonable, credible response to the family crisis. However, he returns with the astonishing information that he couldn't find frankfurters so he bought pickled pigs' feet instead. Now this joke - and it is absolutely fair to the play's tone - doesn't work on any level at all.
Nearly 20 years ago I recall Ellis Rabb staging You Can't Take It With You for the APA/Phoenix. I didn't like it then, but at least it moved quickly. Rabb has staged this revival with a speed that would make a snail look as though it had a pace by contrast.
The acting - from its fairly well-known cast - is so deplorable that it is almost cynical.
Jason Robards plays the patriarchal old gran'pappy with more pap than grandeur. His vocal delivery is as flat as Holland and his gesticulations are as animated as windmills. Colleen Dewhurst - in a starring bit part - whirls into the play's dying throes as if she wanted to whirl right out again.
James Coco, as an effete, epicence but lovable ballet-master, has the only honest comment in the play, when asked to evaluate his young protegee's dancing frankly observes that: "It stinks!" Well, yes - but who in these circumstances has the right to be counting.
The best performance - apart from a pained yet modestly graceful portrayal of love locked out from Maureen Anderman - comes from Elizabeth Wilson as the nutty eye-popped mother - although the idea of her being Robards' daughter stretched probability. But the age differences all seem surprisingly mixed-up. The casting is not bright - only starry.
The production - which, by the way, looks like summer stock on a rainy, autumn afternoon - started at the new Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. It would be too flattering to say it should have stayed there. It should never have even started there.
At the end of the new Broadway revival of ''You Can't Take It With You,'' the cast refuses to take a polite curtain call. Instead, the actors pair off, collapse into one another's arms and take to dancing about the stage. And it isn't polite dancing, either: as choreographed by Reed Jones, the couples leap about, still in character, with such rowdiness that you'd think they'd all been at a party rather than performing a play. Actually, the 1936 George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart screwball comedy at the Plymouth is more party than play - but, either way, you're glad to be part of the merriment.
''You Can't Take It With You'' has probably been ruined by more high school productions than anyone can count, and, let's face it, its confectionary charms are not foolproof: the writing is far too slipshod in design to be mistaken for classic farce, much too landlocked by its simple, best-things-in-life-are-free Depression escapism to speak to the ages. But the assets - sentimental warmth and giddy high spirits - are there, if only actors are willing to play them for keeps. Let's thank the director, Ellis Rabb, who also staged the hit 1965 revival of this work, for again assembling just such players and knitting them into a family that almost anyone would want to adopt for far longer than three acts.
As you no doubt know, Kaufman and Hart's characters are the Sycamore clan, an eccentric lot who have mostly dropped out from the troublesome real world. Grandpa (Jason Robards) gave up business 35 years earlier to enjoy himself collecting snakes and attending Columbia University commencements. Daughter Penny (Elizabeth Wilson) writes steamy plays simply because someone delivered a typewriter to the house by mistake. Her husband (Jack Dodson) builds firecrackers in the basement with Mr. DePinna (Bill McCutcheon), who dropped by years earlier to deliver some ice and never left.
Yet what makes ''You Can't Take It With You'' so consistently appealing in this production - even as the toothless jokes about Roosevelt and Trotsky have faded - is that Mr. Rabb and company do not settle for defining the principal characters exclusively by the comic traits that the authors rather mechanically doled out to them. Whenever the script gives them room, the actors insist on portraying these zanies as real people whose behavior is not merely a setup for gags but a valiant response to hard times.
When Mr. Robards speaks of how much he hated the ''jungle'' of the business rat race - and how much he prefers a bohemian life that allows him ''just to go along and be happy'' - he is expressing sentiments that we've heard in dozens of 1930's comedies. But what usually sounds like idle fantasizing is given so much conviction by this actor that we're half-tempted to quit our jobs and seize happiness just like him. (Only later do we realize, unlike the authors, that it takes an independent income or maybe a redistribution of wealth to put the plan into effect.) Miss Wilson's Penny, while a loon, is also a matriarch: when she speaks musically of planning a feast featuring Campbell's Soup, she gets the laugh but also finds poignancy in Penny's ability to cope no matter what.
Even the play's potentially drippiest passages become radiant under this approach. The romantic scenes between Penny's daughter, Alice (Maureen Anderman), and the well-bred boss's son, Tony (Nicolas Surovy), are sexy and touching because the young lovers are played as adults, not juveniles. Alice describes herself as ''the Kay Francis'' of her office, but the heavenly Miss Anderman is more Margaret Sullavan: the only ''sane'' member of her family, she's bursting with so much intelligence and love that we forget she's written according to type. The same goes for the earnest, determined Mr. Surovy, who whirls Miss Anderman around the darkened living room to ''These Foolish Things'' as if he can't wait to take her to bed (after a marriage ceremony, of course).
The better jokes are well served too. Mr. Robards is, as always, a flinty wit, and when he explains the stubborn logic by which he refuses to pay income tax, he could be the patrician George Burns. Mr. McCutcheon, hound-dog-faced and dumpy, is quite droll posing in a Roman toga. Miss Wilson, pure sunshine in her summer-print dresses, shows off her distinctively ditsy timing (of eyebrows and chin as well as of voice) when she none-too-innocently embarrasses Tony's stuffed-shirt parents by springing a free-association parlor game built around the words ''sex'' and ''lust.''
A few studied tableaux aside, Mr. Rabb rides the waves of chuckles and affection that flow through the homey set designed by James Tilton, and he usually has a secure hand on the farcical explosions that are sparked by unexpected firecracker displays and invasions from G-men.
In the large, powerhouse cast, there are only a few lesser lights. James Coco, as the Russian ballet teacher, is funnier than the balletomaines in Broadway's other current 1936 revival, but he falls into shtick that this production otherwise avoids. Carol Androsky is routine as his principal student and a trifle mature for Christopher Foster, who is charming as her xylophone-playing husband.
But Rosetta Le Noire and Arthur French, as the black servants, and Richard Woods and Meg Mundy, as Tony's Wall Street-snooty parents, all succeed in stretching period stereotypes into people. And, as an Act III dessert, we get Colleen Dewhurst, dripping in velvet and braying of ''blintzes,'' as the Russian Grand Duchess who ''hasn't had a good meal since before the Revolution'' and now works as a waitress at Child's. It's a cameo role, but Miss Dewhurst, functioning as a cleanup hitter, knocks every laugh line clear out of the park.
Not long after her exit, the dancing begins, soon to be capped by a singalong in which audience and actors join to croon ''Good Night, Sweetheart.'' By then we're feeling, as Mr. Robards says, that ''life is kind of beautiful,'' and it's no easy thing to leave the festivities at the Plymouth to face the ruder life that lies in wait outside.