James Earl Jones Serves as Ringmaster of Family Circus in You Can't Take It With You

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16 Aug 2014

James Earl Jones
James Earl Jones
Joseph Marzullo/WENN

James Earl Jones, star of the Broadway revival of You Can't Take It With You, talks with Playbill.com about the play's relevancy and political message to a 21st-century audience. 

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James Earl Jones, set to anchor the new Broadway revival of You Can't Take It With You, was actually harboring hopes to one day star in a different Kaufman and Hart classic.

"What I wanted to do was The Man Who Came to Dinner," said Jones, mentioning the lead role of acerbic, insufferable columnist and radio personality Sheridan Whiteside. Instead, he will be playing the much more even-tempered — if no less eccentric — Martin Vanderhof, the head of bursting 1930s household that adheres to no conformity.

Jones is quite content with his unexpected new assignment. And many of his fellow artists are happy he agreed to try it on.

"To have him play my father is a privilege," said Kristine Nielsen, who portrays Martin's daughter, the painting and playwriting Penny Sycamore. "I'll seize it. I'm a theatre creature. He's of an era that you don't want to be disconnected from."

When director Scott Ellis was offered the job, his first question was, "Well, who's doing Grandpa?" When he heard it was Jones, he signed on. "I felt you can't do it unless you have a great grandfather," said Ellis.

Scott Ellis
Photo by Monica Simoes

Ellis was not this production's first pilot. "The truth is Michael Wilson was involved at the beginning and Michael's schedule got mixed up," explained Ellis. The producers called him up. "They said. 'Michael can't do it, would you be interested?'"

This will be Ellis' first stab at a Kaufman and Hart play, and it will be Broadway's first staging in more than 30 years. The most recent rendition was director Ellis Rabb's 1983 production, which starred Jason Robards, Jr., Elizabeth Wilson, James Coco, Colleen Dewhurst and Maureen Anderman and has taken on the air of legend in the ensuing years.

"It's pretty spectacular," said Ellis, who has seen a tape of the production.

A lot has changed, of course, since 1936, when George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart concocted the farce, which put forth a kind of live-and-let-live, gentle collectivism as the cure for all life's ills during The Great Depression. The Vanderhof household doesn't much care what's going on outside their door, as long as everyone inside is content and feels cared for.

In today's very different political climate, however, Grandpa could be viewed differently. What with his anti-government refusal to pay taxes and the fireworks being manufactured in the basement, he's as close to the right-wing Libertarianism as he is to left wing, quasi-socialism.

Nielsen is not so sure. "This play is about collectivism," she said. "It is socialism. It is 'take care of each other.'"

"It's more relevant today than it was ten or 15 years ago," said Christopher Hart, son of the co-author. "The struggles of the '30s are similar to the struggles we're still coming out of, with the recession. The people in the play are having to do a little extra to get by. I don't think the fireworks and the candy-making and printing is just eccentric behavior. They needed to earn a little extra to get by. Times were tough. They didn't talk about it directly, but that's what it was all about. I think people will understand that."

Ellis, too, believes the play still has something to say to today's audiences.

"The politics of it all were very much of its times," said Ellis. "But the core, the heart of it has not changed. The idea of being true to yourself; and life is going to go by very fast. Just try to enjoy yourself. If anything, that has gotten stronger, because our world has gotten so fast. We're all on cell phones, we're all on computers."

For Hart, James Earl Jones has found the heart of the play. "He seems rather like Grandpa," said Hart. "He's very calm. He's swimming into it. Everybody expects it to be funny, because it's a comedy, but it's also very moving. He found that, James did."

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Kristine Nielsen, Mark Linn-Baker, Rose Byrne, Annaleigh Ashford, James Earl Jones and Will Brill
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN