"Dysfunctional" wasn't a word in wide usage back in 1937 when George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart wrote their Pulitzer Prize-winning You Can't Take It With You, but "pixilated" was, thanks to Frank Capra's 1936 "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" — so that's what we have moving into the Longacre Theatre on Sept. 29: the first pixilated family of American comedy, the Vanderhof-Sycamore tribe of 731 Fairmont, New York City.
James Earl Jones is downright belovable as the head of this benignly unhinged household, and Rose Byrne makes a delightful Broadway debut as the odd daughter out — the normal one in a house where there are snakes to be tended, ballets to be learned, xylophones to be played, dramas to be written, paintings to be painted — and, oh yes, there is a pyrotechnic display being assembled in the basement.
Thirty years have miraculously elapsed since You Can't Take It With You left Broadway, and it left with a wistful postscript — a schmaltzy Depression-vintage ditty. After the collective curtain call, the cast of 19 launched into the perfect capper for an old-fashioned con amore comedy: "Goodnight sweetheart, all my prayers are for you / Goodnight sweetheart, I'll be watching o'er you..." The audience, taken aback and a bit teary, joined in and floated out of the theatre into eye-opening reality.
The song was something of a benediction to a bygone era of American innocence that you can only get to now in theatre — when folks greeted the Depression with the opposite emotion and some brave bromides, when there was fun in dysfunctional.
"Goodnight Sweetheart" was an inspired directorial flourish from Ellis Rabb, who helmed three of the six Broadway productions of YCTIWY, including the famous APA version of the '60s. Co-author Kaufman staged the first, and Scott Ellis is directing the latest.
In the APA edition, Mr. Rabb's then-wife, Rosemary Harris, played Alice, the one sane and sensible member of the Vanderhof household, perpetually apologizing to her straitlaced beau for her family's eccentric foibles — much as Ms. Harris did a decade later as the pillar of an acting dynasty trying to marry out of the biz in The Royal Family, the Kaufman-Ferber comedy that Mr. Rabb also brought to Broadway.
The comfy, cozy, cluttered, lived-in living room that David Rockwell has created looks like it could easily house both of those Kaufman plays — plus a little Arsenic and Old Lace on the side — with a staircase fit for John Barrymore bounding and Teddy Roosevelt charging. You start to melt into melancholy at the sight of it.
James Earl Jones, 83, having given so generously at the office with a clear-eyed, big-hearted, ruler-of-the-unruly-roost performance, saw fit to skip the after-party festivities at the Brassiere on West 57th. It was the first time that his understudy, the equally hulking and humanistic Charles Turner, has gone on for him.
Interviews were conducted in an out-of-the-way, subterranean room well removed from the eating-and-drinking areas. First to arrive was Byron Jennings, who plays the moneybags who is compelled to party with potential in-laws who aren't of the same club or class.
Last to arrive, as befits a newborn Broadway star, was Byrne, who skated graciously though the press gauntlet while her beau, Bobby Cannavale, waited in the hallway.
"I've wanted to do a play for years" — 14, to put a fine point on it, and that was back in her native Sydney — "but I'm a big lover of theatre and I go to Broadway a lot.
"I think as an actor, if you're a little bit scared, you should probably do it," she reasoned. "This is a really irresistible comedy, and the role is kinda deceiving on paper. You think she's one thing, then once you get in the [rehearsal] room, you discover she's something else. I love the struggle of this girl harboring both shame and love for her family and then falling in love with this kind of the wrong guy."
Her first scene in the movie, "This Is Where I Leave You," as Jason Bateman's rekindled old flame would make you know she would work out nicely in the Vanderhof-Sycamore homestead. But director Ellis cast her without seeing the film. "I guess he had had me in mind," she deduced. "We met and read — it's one of those things that really worked out, and I'm really, truly just honored to be here."
One slight glitch her first official night on Broadway: during her big love scene (as big as it gets here), a picture toppled off the wall behind her. Rattled a bit, she pressed on. "That's what so great about live theatre. What happens, happens."
Fran Kranz, who shared the scene with her as Tony Kirby, the boss' son who's courting her, was thrown a little, too. "Wasn't that intense? I had a weird moment of thinking, 'Well, what would I do?' I tried to stay in character. I mean, like, it's not my house. I'm not going to pick it up. And then I realized, 'Let's just ignore it.'"
No, he hasn't seen the Oscar-winning movie version of the play. "Now I'm in that strange place — do I see the movie, or don't I? I know Jimmy Stewart played Tony Kirby, and he's one of my favorite actors, and Frank Capra's one of my favorite directors so I feel like I have to see it, but I also heard that it's very different than the play, that they rewrote it quite a bit, so I think it would be okay for me to see."
For the present, he's breathing easier. "I'm just happy that it's over, to be honest. Opening night means it's ours, that it's just beginning. It's not about nerves or the stress or the pressure of the critics. It's just that it's become a whole new chapter and everyone can really relax and have fun with the play in a whole different way." One character you'll not find in the film is Gay Wellington, a thoroughly tanked actress visiting the Vanderhof home. Julie Halston (who knows she can get away with it) gleefully goes over the top with it, making her exit on all fours up a long staircase. Think a mortally wounded Jennifer Jones crawling her way up a canyon to a mortally wounded Gregory Peck in "Duel in the Sun," and you have the size of it.
A multi-tasker, Halston is made to quote a bawdy limerick, unsteady as she goes. "About six or seven performances ago, they changed the limerick on me, The estate wanted this limerick, so I thought, 'How am I going to do that?' I said to Scott, 'I'd like to try something very physical. Can you trust me?' He said, 'All right, try it tonight.' And I crawled — because I thought, 'When you're blind drunk, you crawl.'"
Also missing in the film's action and late-arriving in the play is a Russian grand duchess who has been reduced to waiting tables at Childs — not just any Childs, either. "I work Times Square," declares Elizabeth Ashley in a grand flourish.
"I had a wonderful time," the actress admitted. "Couldn't you tell?"
When she was pitched the part — small as it was — she was flattered. "I had seen it with Colleen Dewhurst and I was just thrilled to be thought of in the same league."
Kristine Nielsen, sporting a Connie Gilchrist wig and a Marion Lorne vacancy, is a major pillar of fun throughout as the mother of the house who, by very sharp turns is a playwright or a painter. "I loved every minute of it. It was like improvising. I feel like the lines are fresh every night. It's such a great group of people to play with."
Patrick Kerr, who poses for her as a discus thrower when she's in painter mode and recklessly manufactures fireworks in the basement with her husband (Mark Linn-Baker, also with a great comedic face), gets laughs needing help out of an over-extended curtsey and emitting a dull buzz-saw cry of pain over an injured hand.
The character's specialty: always making the most inappropriate remark. "And in my life as well," he said. "I kick myself all day long, except it's he who does it."
It's not so much as dance as it is bad poetry in motion. With great abandon, she bounds about the living room like a heavily feathered gazelle — never walking. No matter how jerky or wild the movement, she slowly returns to the rest position.
Annaleigh's secret: "I collaborated with Nathan Peck from Kinky Boots, who's a brilliant dancer," she said. "We created some formulas and structure that Scott Ellis was able to come in and help us shape. We created kind of a story for Essie to always be telling through dance. Back in the 1930s, most of the ballets were very dramatic and had some mime elements. In each portion of dance, there's some kind of objective Essie has, either to get away from somebody or whatever. Once I play the dying swan, which is indicated in the script. There's always a reason for the dance."
Her accompanist, Brill, professes no musical abilities at all — despite what you see.
"I learned to play the xylophone for this, and I learned to play the guitar for a film, but I never grew up playing any kind of instrument. But this'll go on my resume."
His take on the character is a kind of child-man, and Brill is a good enough actor to make the tics count — and funny. His supporting performance in Tribes a few years earned him a nomination from the Outer Critics Circle. (He lost to James Earl Jones.) "I love how much love Ed has in his heart. That's the main thing. He's child-like enough to not know there would ever be anything wrong with putting acres of trust and love in another human being. He doesn't worry about things. He doesn't see it."
The man who teaches the bizarre balletic moves comes with a thick Russian accent and an anarchist goatee from an exuberant Reg Rogers who gives him a solid account. "I like that Boris is actually real, that he's not nonsense. He's talking about society, and he's talking about dark, terrible things, but he's able to join the family. Ultimately, the best part about him is that he's part of the family. They wouldn't keep him around if he was like everybody else so he's got that element to him."
But Boris is pushing when he wrestles Mr. Kirby to the living room. "I worked with Byron years ago in a play at Yale Rep called Figaro/Figaro, and it was an adaptation by Eric Overmeyer of Beaumarchais' The Marriage of Figaro and Odon von Horvath's 1937 drama, Figaro Gets a Divorce — which is always a big hit. I'm sure you know it. This is the first time we've gotten to work together again, and we're enjoying it."
Karl Kenzler is a brief and lonely flash of sanity in the proceedings — the hapless income-tax man who happens by to collect 24 years of back taxes from Grandpa Vanderhof, who doesn't believe in income taxes. He leaves in such a hysterical hurry he forgets his hat, which Grandpa claims, "The government gave it to me."
But if you look sharp, you can see Kenzler reclaiming his hat. "At the end, Scott paired up everybody, and then said, 'Who's left?' I raised my hand. He said, 'Karl, what do you want to do?' I said, 'I want my hat back.' He said, 'Good. Go for it.'"
When they arrived together at the Longacre, the temptation was greet the children of the authors — Anne Kaufman Schneider and Catherine and Christopher Hart — and say, "I have great news, guys: The rewrites work!"
The children knew better. "I loved it," Schneider wasn't shy about admitting when she was asked her opinion later at the party. "I've seen this production three times, once a week during previews. I don't remember the original one. I was nine."
Christopher Hart was also super-pleased: "This was the best opening night I've ever been to. So many people were so good in this version. There wasn't a weak link anywhere down the line. Everybody had their moments. It's a real ensemble."