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“You Can’t Take It With You:” Classic Play Vs. Classic Film

Annaleigh Ashord & Reg Rogers in the B'way revival

Annaleigh Ashord & Reg Rogers in the B’way revival

Welcome to Geek Out/Freak Out, where theatre fans get super enthusiastic about things.

This week, Stages editor Mark Blankenship geeks out (via Google Doc) with Catherine Sheehy, chair of Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism at Yale School of Drama and Resident Dramaturg at Yale Repertory Theatre.

Mark Blankenship: Hi Catherine! As you may recall, we were recently talking about the current Broadway revival of You Can’t Take It With You, which led us down all sorts of roads about the play’s enduring relevance, surprisingly resilient humor, and ongoing hold on the culture. And being the industrious fellow that I am, I thought it might be fun to revisit some of those ideas today… but WITH A TWIST.

The twist, of course, being that we both recently re-watched Frank Capra’s 1938 film, which won the Oscar for Best Picture and stars a whole bunch of Great American Actors.

So with that in mind, I’d like to launch with this opening volley: Now that you’ve been re-immersed in both the film and the Roundabout’s revival, did you find yourself discovering anything fresh in You Can’t Take It With You? Something that you perhaps hadn’t noticed before?

Catherine Sheehy: I have to say that it was my memory of Frank Capra’s film version that almost kept me from even attending this current revival. If I hadn’t had some friends in the cast, I might never have gone. But I am so very glad I did! The play itself is so much less heavy-handed than the film version, with its screenplay by Robert Riskin and its characteristic “Capra corn.”

Mark: You mean you find it unsubtle when Lionel Barrymore makes a huffing speech about how neighbors used to be friendly, but now they fight and carry on?

But seriously… I had never seen the film until this weekend, and mostly, it proved to me that the original play is remarkably fleet and insightful. But I’ll tell you something that works for me in both versions… that scene where the Kirbys walk in on the entire Vanderhoff/Sycamore clan painting and dancing and generally acting like fools. It seems like a miracle to me that something can still be so funny after so many decades.

Catherine: There are two things I think work about that scene. One is the genuine warmth that Kaufman and Hart have established in their characters without sentimentality…or rather at the verge of sentimentality. Penny with her play about a woman in a monastery, Grandpa telling the snakes they’re lucky that they don’t have to participate in human institutions like graduation, Kolenkhov sure that everything stinks! These people are not just lovable eccentrics, but they are lovable eccentrics with very keen social perception AND extraordinary tolerance for each other and for everyone around them. The other reason I think it’s always funny is because Kaufman honed his craft with the Marx Brothers, who knew better than anyone that the stuffiness of a drawing room went best with absolute anarchy.

Mark: Okay, I am SO glad you brought up the fact that this play—and most of the film—unfolds in a drawing room, because that location signals a lot of why I love it. Ultimately, this play presents this utopia of a space where everyone who enters immediately falls under the spell of open-hearted tolerance, which results in them expressing their best selves. Crucially, those “best selves” don’t necessarily mean their “most skilled selves,” because God knows Essie will never be dancing with ABT, but the selves that are least constrained by the so-called American ideals of capitalism and striving and success above all. Instead, everyone who enters this particular room gets to enjoy those other American ideals of individualism and self-actualization.

And to me it’s crucial that it all takes place in a drawing room, because the living room/family room/drawing room is such a powerful battleground for American identity. From O’Neill to Modern Family, we’ve played out so many ideas of ourselves in the room where the family gathers. If Mr. Sycamore were blowing up fireworks in a remote yert somewhere, it would be easier to dismiss him as a fringe weirdo, but by placing him and all the others in a family room, the play insists that we take these people seriously. One more way it refuses to let them become a joke.

Whew! But all that leads me to a question: Could you talk a little bit more about how you think the play avoids sentimentality? Because I agree, but I’ve never been able to quite articulate why.

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December 19, 2014   No Comments

WATCH: Meet Company XIV

From time to time, TDF Stages will highlight exciting Off and Off-Off Broadway theatre companies with exclusive “getting to know you” videos. Today we’re featuring Company XIV, a dance-theatre company where art and entertainment crash together.

 This video features company members Austin McCormick, Laura Careless, and Davon Rainey.

Company XIV is currently presenting Nutcracker Rouge: A Burlesque Confection, its naughty spin on the holiday classic.

Meet More Theatres!

This video was directed by Mark Blankenship, TDF’s online content editor, and shot and edited by Nicholas Guldner.

December 17, 2014   No Comments

This Play Needs a Co-Star. How About You?

Jonny Donahoe in Every Brilliant Thing

Jonny Donahoe in Every Brilliant Thing

The surprisingly rich audience participation in Every Brilliant Thing

You’re closer than you realize to co-starring in an Off-Broadway play. Just buy a ticket to Every Brilliant Thing, now at the Barrow Street Theatre, and you could easily land a significant role. That’s because the show relies on audience participation, and in a meatier, more dramatic way than you’ll find at a typical improv night.

As the unnamed narrator (played by British stand-up comedian Jonny Donahoe) tells the story of his mother’s suicidal depression and his own attempts to cure her, he enlists the crowd to play the people he loves. Randomly chosen patrons portray his father, his love interest, and even his veterinarian, and through some ingenious work by playwright Duncan Macmillan, they’re able to seriously impact the story.

At one point, for instance, the narrator tells us his therapist liked to play a game with him during their sessions, and based on how the selected audience member responds, he adjusts the rules. That leaves the civilian looking correct, no matter what.

And then there’s the list. When he’s a little boy, the narrator’s strategy for “curing” his mom is to create a numbered list of every wonderful aspect of the world. As he calls out numbers, audience members read the corresponding “brilliant thing” on a paper that Donahoe has given them before the show. By the end of the sixty minute production, which comes to New York after successful runs in England and Scotland, we’ve all become a chorus of celebration.

Crucially, the list (as well as Donahoe’s feisty performance) makes this play about depression and suicide feel buoyant and nuanced, not viciously dark or cheaply optimistic. As Macmillan says, “There’s a way of talking about it that’s sincere and funny and accessible and tries to communicate the complexity of the issue without being mawkish about it. That’s the tightrope walk.”

The impact depends, of course, on Donahoe finding people who want to participate, but that’s why he spends 20 minutes circulating through the house before showtime, passing out pieces of the list. “During that, I cast the play,” he says. “I try to get people involved in the spirit of sharing something. It would be very easy to give those sheets to the ushers and say, ‘Here you go! Hand them out at random!’, but that’s not what we’re creating.” [Read more →]

December 16, 2014   No Comments

WATCH: Meet Keen Company

From time to time, TDF Stages will highlight exciting Off and Off-Off Broadway theatre companies with exclusive “getting to know you” videos. Today we’re featuring Keen Company, which is radically committed to generosity of spirit.

This video features actors Marsha Mason, Kathleen Chalfant, and Keith Nobbs, as well as artistic director Jonathan Silverstein.

On December 8, Keen Company will celebrate its 15th anniversary with a reunion reading of John Patrick’s The Hasty Heart.

Meet more theatres!

This video was directed by Mark Blankenship, TDF’s online content editor, and shot and edited by Nicholas Guldner.

December 1, 2014   No Comments

How Many Times Would You Forgive Someone?

Ismenia Mendes as Emma & Quincy Tyler Bernstein as Shelley

Ismenia Mendes as Emma & Quincy Tyler Bernstein as Shelley

Heidi Schreck on the moral questions in Grand Concourse

After I saw Heidi Schreck’s play Grand Concourse, I made a mistake. The show left me uncomfortable, so I thought that meant I didn’t like it.
But I realized I was wrong: The play, which is at Playwrights Horizons through November 30, is successful because it makes me uneasy. Lots of writers tell me what I think I want to hear, but Schreck forces me to consider things about myself that are no less true for being unpleasant.

Specifically, she deals with forgiveness. Set in a Bronx soup kitchen, Grand Concourse follows a nun named Shelley who’s trying to reconcile her crisis of faith with her strong desire to help people. Soon enough, she meets a volunteer named Emma, a troubled but charismatic young woman who hurts Shelley (and others around her) several times.

So can Shelley keep forgiving Emma for causing her pain? Or is there a limit to how much one human being can possibly overlook?

When I recently spoke to Schreck, who is Playwrights Horizons’ first Tow Foundation playwright in residence, we discussed Grand Concourse‘s moral compass and the stark realities of forgiveness.

Mark Blankenship: What made you want to tackle forgiveness as a theme in Grand Concourse?

Heidi Schreck: I came to the play with the question of how forgiveness works generally and more specifically how it works for me. It’s a question that has haunted me for a long time. I grew up in a family of do-gooders in the best sense of the word. My parents ran a home for homeless kids and really devoted their whole lives to our community. They taught me that forgiveness was what one ought to give, no matter what happened.

MB: Which can be easier said than done.

HS: Oh yes. As I got older, I began to realize that I didn’t fully understand what that meant and that I had a more superficial relationship to it than I realized. I got into the question of “Is everything forgivable”? Well, clearly not everything. But putting aside great acts of evil, are there small, personal acts that are also unforgivable? And how do you decide? And what is forgiveness anyway?

MB: Without giving too much away, I can tell you that I was deeply struck by Shelley and Emma’s conversation about this very subject at the end of the play. Did you start the script knowing it would end there?

HS: At first I thought the play was about this younger woman inspiring this older woman who has lost faith in her vocation. But then I realized Emma was not as honest as I thought she was.

MB: Right. Which makes it harder to deliver the tidy ending where everyone feels good and makes soup. [Read more →]

November 24, 2014   No Comments