James Earl Jones, more often a lion who roars, instead brings a soft steadiness to his role as the family patriarch in “You Can’t Take It With You,” the Moss Hart-George S. Kaufman comedy—a perennial favorite that first arrived during the Great Depression—now enjoying a revival at the Longacre Theatre.
“You Can’t Take It With You” still feels like the perfect escapist comedy for tough times, in spite of its creaky references to “the 48 states” and Eleanor Roosevelt. For that, you can thank a top-notch ensemble that includes Rose Byrne, in an impressive Broadway debut, as well as helmsman Scott Ellis (“Drood”), whose zippy direction brings the play’s three acts in at 2 hours and 20 minutes.
Byrne, a star of TV’s “Damages” and the foil to Kristen Wiig in “Bridesmaids,” is Alice, the only conventional member of the happy-go-lucky Sycamore clan. How the Sycamores pay for their magnificent house near Columbia University is anyone’s guess, because the family patriarch, Martin Vanderhof—or just “Grandpa” (Jones)—hasn’t worked in 35 years.
The story’s central conflict is set in motion when Alice becomes engaged to her boss, Tony Kirby (Fran Kranz), who hails from a proper Wall Street family.
Jones’s Grandpa, a gentle giant, quit his career because it wasn’t gratifying, and has spent his days raising snakes and generally sauntering through life as if he’d found the perfect combination of SSRIs and Abilify. Like every member of the family, he’s happy because he does what he wants, not what society says he “should do.” Thus, his home is filled with people practicing the xylophone, dancing, writing, painting, making fireworks and so forth.
Grandpa gets the most winning lines, brushing aside the IRS man who comes to find out why he’s never paid income tax, and continuously laying out fortune cookie wisdom as if it were a one-size-fits-all key to peace of mind: “Life is kind of beautiful if you let it come to you,” he explains to Boris Kolenkhov (Reg Rogers, of “The Royal Family,” in a delightfully combustible performance), the ballet instructor who is almost always in the house.
It’s worth the price of admission alone to see the usually booming actor in a calming and comedic role. It makes matters all the more potent when Grandpa has to apologize after Mr. Kolenkhov slams the elder Mr. Kirby (Byron Jennings) on the floor in a misguided display of wrestling prowess: “Russians are inclined to look on the dark side,” Jones explains matter-of-factly, to howls from the house. I'm still not sure if we were responding to a joke about Russians, or connecting to his history as the voice of Darth Vader.
Byrne’s role has the least flash, by definition, but she fits into the ensemble nicely, bringing just the right amount of kookiness to the role. She and Kranz (pictured below) make for a swell couple of sweethearts.
The real comic relief, though, comes from Annaleigh Ashford, as Alice’s sister, Essie, the hapless ballet student. Ashford is as on point here as she was in her Tony-nominated performance in “Kinky Boots,” clumsily pirouetting across the stage in time with the xylophone-music churned out by her nutty husband, Ed (an impressively elastic Will Brill).
Kristine Nielsen (“Vanya and Sonia …”) is enormous fun as Alice and Essie’s off-kilter mom, Penelope, a sometime-writer and sometime-painter who shakes her head at everything, whether in delight or in dismay. The venerable Elizabeth Ashley, a three-time Tony nominee (and winner, for 1962’s “Take Her, She’s Mine), makes the most of her scenery-chewing role as a Russian countess forced to wait tables in Times Square.
Julie Halston, recently seen in Charles Busch’s “The Tribute Artist,” again delights, this time as an actress who spends most of the play soused. At a press performance I attended, Halston brought down the house trying to make it up a flight of stairs.
David Rockwell’s turntable set is jammed with detail. Most of the action takes place in the wood-paneled living room of what appears to be an old Victorian, with a flight of stairs on one end, and the kitchen door on the other. Original music by Jason Robert Brown (“The Bridges of Madison County”) barely registered with me.
Happiness, this solid production insists, is far more important than money—that’s a position that easily resonates with audiences, and it’s a message that never gets old. I only wish I could travel back in time to see how a beleaguered and downtrodden Depression-era audience would have first experienced it. I'll bet they thrilled to every word even more than we do.
“You Can’t Take It With You,” through Jan. 4 at the Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St. Tickets: $37-$152. Call Telecharge, 212-239-6200.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn