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Fun With Dysfunction 

The jokes are faded, but the laughs remain in You Can't Take It With You.

Essie (Kathryn Cherasaro) capers joyfully through this American classic.
  • Essie (Kathryn Cherasaro) capers joyfully through this American classic.
More than a decade ago, the inestimable humor rag Spy Magazine ran a continuing feature in which it noted how the plot lines of various contemporary TV sitcoms were identical to those of earlier shows -- often aired decades earlier -- proving either plagiarism or a surprisingly coincidental comic inspiration. (This was one of the many enduring gifts Spy has bestowed upon our culture, including the "Separated at Birth" photo comparison and the priceless description of Donald Trump as a "short-fingered vulgarian.")

In the same way, one could consider You Can't Take It With You, the flat-out hilarious 1936 play written by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, as the starter kit for countless scripts containing a gaggle of eccentrics who, darn it, just want to be who they are. Set in New York City in the home of the Sycamore family, this halfway house for slightly batty individualists is headed by Grandpa Martin Vanderhof, a live-for-the-moment fellow who exited the hurly-burly of corporate life long ago to spend his days going to the zoo, tending his pet snakes, practicing darts, and just enjoying himself.

Such a simplistic approach to life was undeniably attractive in Depression-era America, when songwriters were trying to convince people struggling with desperate poverty that "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries." Trouble is, cherries cost money, and in the context of this play -- now being performed in repertory with The Merry Wives of Windsor by the Great Lakes Theater Festival -- it helps that Paul Sycamore, in whose slightly faded middle-class house everyone resides, has enough cash to fund such a bohemian lifestyle. Paul (George Roth) is busy following his muse by assembling fireworks in the basement, aided by fellow inventor Mr. De Pinna (portrayed with a juicy lateral lisp by Paul Kiernan), a guy who was delivering ice to local homes until he stepped into the Sycamore residence eight years before and never left.

These are just a few of the zany characters inhabiting this work, which is popular with community theaters and high schools, since it affords 19 people a moment in the spotlight. But it is a pleasure to see how the talented Great Lakes crew, under the direction of Drew Barr, creates a believably unhinged herd of folks that you're eager to spend three acts observing. The tone is perfectly set at the outset when Penelope Sycamore, Paul's wife and Gramps' daughter, is mulling the stalled plot of a play she's writing about a young woman taking shelter in a convent ("You'd think with 40 monks and one girl, something would happen!"). Having entered the literary world by accident when a typewriter was mistakenly delivered to the house, Penny, played with a sly mixture of dilettante flightiness and iron-willed determination by Lynn Allison, now has a stack of florid, unfinished scripts to match the unfinished oil portraits that testify to her previous passion.

One of the Sycamore daughters, Essie (the endearing Kathryn Cherasaro), is a dedicated but ungainly dancer, who displays her modest talents with every movement while her hubby, Ed (a sweetly befuddled Marc Moritz), practices the xylophone and prints the family's daily menu on his small printing press. The other daughter, Alice, is almost normal; she's in love with her boss' son, Tony Kirby. Rapier-slim Elizabeth A. Davis and earnest Jeff Cribbs manage to craft a credible romance amid all the craziness, but things come a cropper when Tony's parents show up early for a get-acquainted dinner one night and catch the Sycamores and friends in full derangement.

Dudley Swetland's pompous Mr. Kirby is the ideal foil for this confrontation; his disdain for the suggested impromptu meal of frankfurters and canned salmon is matched by his wife's frosty demeanor. But when Penny decides to play a word game, the Kirbys confront chinks in their own relationship and the stage is set for the happily forced denouement.

Capturing the rolling cadences of Lionel Barrymore, who played Pops Vanderhof in the Frank Capra film version, Wayne Turney is warm and charming, but lacks the grit necessary when the populist patriarch rails against the IRS. In a smaller role, Andrew May gnaws on his Russian-accented syllables with gusto as Essie's dance coach, Boris Kolenkhov, and causes havoc when he face-plants Mr. Kirby in a spontaneous demonstration of wrestling prowess. Additionally, Meg Chamberlain is a boozy blast as drunken actress Gay Wellington, shanghaied from a bus by Penny to read scripts. When Gay woozily encounters the glass box containing Grandpa's pets, she slurs, "When I start seeing snakes, I know it's time for me to lie down."

Although some of the topical jokes of the time are faded beyond recognition, the Great Lakes actors prove their mettle by focusing on the humanity, rather than the peculiarities, of their characters. This makes the situations even funnier and the evening an untrammeled delight.

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