AUTHENTIC camp is a rare thing, but the script of You Can't Take It With You crawls with it. Darkie cook Rheba says to shuffle-foot Donald. "Yassuh, I'm glad I'm colored": angel-daughter Alice cries exasperatedly. "Why can't we be like other people? Roast Beef, and two green vegetables, and doilies on the table..."; Kolenkhov, the emigre ballet master, deadpans. "She is a great woman, the Grand Duchess. Her cousin was the Czar of Russia, and today she is waitress in Child's Restaurant. Columbus Circle." Unadulterated camp is screamingly funny just because it is so guileless. Humor is closely bound to context, and an amusing line in 1936 becomes a hilarious one in 1970, precisely because the time warp can kleig-light meanings only implicit in the original.
I love Kaufman and Hart, and I love the thirties. But the Harpo production of You Can't Take It With You endows its characters with the fatal fruit of self-knowledge: it's a classic example of "camping." Instead of giving us the original and allowing the dislocation in time and space to provide the boffs, we are presented with a modern, hip conception of the thirties. The ingenue is not just "lovely, fresh, and young," as Messrs. K. and H. described her: Kent Wilson's Alice is a veritable Breck poster girl, a walking Palmolive ad, a cutie who lifts her calf when kissed and who drops into a Pola Negri swoon when embraced. Colin Cabot's Tony, the boss' son, isn't just a thirties romantic; he crackles around the stage like a Keezer's clothes dummy.
These effects are intentional, and they egg the audience to participate in an "in" joke, but the self-consciousness they enforce and the sniggering communal sensibility they impose lay heavily on the play. The emotional changes which should animate the third act are lost; the tension which should carry us over the hump of the comedy-only tautness can stave off boredom in humor-is flaccid.
Some performances are exceptionally good. Sheila Hart's Penny Sycamore, the zany lady who becomes a playwright because a typewriter was mistakenly delivered to her address, is brilliantly performed: she has assimilated the character so well that her dialogue does not exist as lines, a guile-lessness making at once for high comedy and fine acting. Llody Schwartz's Kolenkhov is a natural scene-stealer. He pronounces "The Monte Carlo Ballet" with just the right Bela Lugosi intonation, he talks and gestures like a proud Rasputin fallen on bad times, and his Romanov leer is so hilariously Russian that one can smell the caviar in the pit. George Mager's classic internal revenue agent scene is a stunning shtic planted in the first act. And Suzanne Sato's wonderful costumes are more convincing than those in any other period piece I've seen.
L AURENCE SENELICK'S direction keeps the cast busy. Everyone is always doing something, and some of the bits (Rheba scratching her head with a work while setting the table, Kolenkhov absently clipping threads from his cuffs with a cuticle scissors) are tremendously successful. The timing can have Marx Brothers accuracy (it can also be unbearably sluggish, something that the Harpo troupe might well improve during the summer Agassiz run). But the production is a 1title too cute, and some of the actors create dreadful characters that seem carved out of soap, so that finally the message of the play-a plea for leisure in a suicidal, capitalistic world-becomes lost in a context whose sophistication administers only a put-on frame of mind.
I'd love to see a revival which captures the period rather than reproduces our preconceived, caricaturing impressions of it. You Can't Take It With You is still a funny play, and if you've never seen a Kaufman and Hart farce, you might trip on up to Agassiz. If only to hear the Andrews Sisters sing Bei Mir Bist Du Shoen during intermission.