The family circus, back at home6/1/2016
“You Can’t Take it With You,” the Broadway smash from 1936, has probably been in production somewhere ever since. A laugh-fest with a lot of heart, it took home the Pulitzer. An Oscar-winning movie and thousands of smaller stagings soon followed.
“Also, you find the basic story in plenty of more recent places,” claims John Viars, director of the new Playhouse production. “It shows us corporate-minded folks who cave in to the power of family and love. That’s classic material.”
Its antics, however, always enjoyed a special relationship to Iowa’s capitol city. Two New Yorkers — Moss Hart and George Kaufman — wrote the script, but Kaufman’s sister Ruth had moved to Des Moines. She married a local businessman, and, as Ruth Friedlich, she helped found the Playhouse in 1919.
“You see ‘Ruth Friedlich’ on a lot of our Playbills from the 1920s,” Viars says. “Then there’s what her son Allan had to say, at the funeral of his ‘Uncle George.’ ”
According to Allan Friedlich, the knuckleball Sycamore family was based on his people in Des Moines. What’s more, his mother was the model for Alice, the play’s dynamic figure. When Alice wins the love of a banker, it unnerves the boy’s parents, and the Sycamores have to demonstrate how counting one’s blessings matters more than counting the Benjamins.
So this city was one of the first outside New York to do “Can’t Take It With You.” In 1969, for its 50th anniversary, the Playhouse brought it back. This summer’s show will be the first since then.
In a late rehearsal, full-dress, the script kept delivering belly-laughs, even among a crew who knew all the lines. Among the various loose screws, Grandpa and parents and more, Emily Davis as Alice maintained the right tension between devotion to her domestic bedlam and cringing at how it must look to her boyfriend. The tension even enlivened her simple question about the time. In this madhouse, no one had a clue, yet Alice’s rueful smirk looks loving.
Details like that stand out in the unusual set, more open than usual. Viars says that “most productions cram the stage with clutter.” A mess seems appropriate for a home where, as Viars puts it, “people follow their bliss — but they’re really bad at their bliss.”
The Playhouse, however, found David Goldstein, a designer out of New York who thought differently. He came up with a two-tier arrangement that has plenty of breathing space. The dark, ornately-worked wood suggests the era, and a couple of props convey the craziness. The mother’s typewriter looks large enough to double as a riding mower.
As for the costumes, Angela Lampe has put together formal business suits and billowing pastel dresses. The combination, fluttering around these open spaces, at times suggests a bunch of clowns under the Big Top. The Sycamore Family Circus, it would seem, has come back home.
Overheard In The Lobby: June 9-10, Des Moines Gay Men’s Chorus presents its “Pride Cabaret.” CV
John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.