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Theater Review: Classic comedy charmingly captures a simpler time

Tolstoy once wrote: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." However, he never said anything about what crazy families are like, an omission that playwrights George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart explore in the charming "You Can't Take It With You," which opened Thursday night at the Duluth Playhouse.

Martin Vanderhof (Kevin Walsh), the head of an eccentric clan, does not believe in paying taxes. His daughter, Penny (Kirsten Hambleton), writes plays, while her husband Paul Sycamore (David Short) makes fireworks in the basement with Mr. De Pinna (Kirby Wood), their former iceman.

Essie (Hannah Smart), the married Sycamore daughter, makes candies but wants to be a dancer in the worst way, while her husband, Ed Carmichael (Tim Komatsu), plays the xylophone and prints cute little seditious phrases.

Alice (Louisa Scorich), the single daughter, has the Mary Tyler Moore role of being the only sane person in the house. The good news is she has found an equally serious gentleman caller in Tony Kirby (Jason Scorich), the boss's son. The bad news is she has to introduce Tony to her crazy family.

Not to worry, because things will get way worse when Tony's parents (the put-upon tag team of Kendall Linn and Ellie Martin) show up at this insane asylum. Just think of the prospective in-laws meeting in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" injected with humor growth hormone.

"You Can't Take It With You" won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1937 and two years later Frank Capra's film version won the Academy Award for Best Picture. So in its day this show was the cat's pajamas.

Today these characters are quirky but quaint, and their eccentric behavior is more endearing than embarrassing, at least until you get all of them in one room at the same time. Above all, they are just so kindhearted, which may well be what dates the play more than anything else.

Grandpa Vanderhof's personal philosophy and political views speak to a simpler time, and Walsh's unabashedly happy demeanor is a welcome respite from today's heightened political tensions.

There are several rather risque jokes for 1937, including one innuendo that must have brought the house down back then (remember, Kaufmann wrote for the Marx Bros.).

Short has a lovely moment discovering Alice's engagement, Smart sets a new standard for hyper-kinetic energy, and Carolyn LePine makes the most of being only one sheet to the wind as Gay Wellington. Jason Scorich succeeds wonderfully in not sounding at all like himself in his endearing characterization of Tony.

Scenic designer Ann Gumpper has dressed the set with an encyclopedic collection of odds and ends that nicely reflects the collection of odd characters. Jeff Brown's lighting design includes a dozen actual lamps and sconces, and a nice special effect for the basement.

Rob Hadaway, making his Playhouse debut as a director, turns the three acts into two, using the act break to set up the show's biggest laugh, and also having cast members offer a trio of delightful period songs to cover the scene changes.

Go see it

What: "You Can't Take It With You"

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through Feb. 19

Where: Duluth Playhouse, 506 W. Michigan St.

Tickets: $30 at duluthplayhouse.org

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