The play, which debuted on Broadway in 1936, “is still one of the most common high school performances of all time — it's been among the top six every decade since the 40s,” NPR reported earlier this year.
There’s good reason for that: done well, it’s really, really funny.
Writing in The New York Times about the production of “You Can’t Take It With You” that opened on Broadway in 2014, theater critic Ben Brantley noted that the only downside to the play “is that it may strain previously underused muscles around your mouth. That can happen when you spend two-and-a-half hours grinning like an idiot.”
The Gunnery’s highly entertaining production had a similar effect on its audience members, as evidenced, in part, by the “repeat customers” who attended more than one performance. The show played to a full house on opening and closing nights, and a nearly full house on Friday evening, despite the cold and pouring rain.
Set in the home of family matriarch Martina Vanderhof in New York, the play focuses on the eccentric yet endearing members of the Sycamore family, who spend their days doing things that simply make them happy. Their interests range from writing, painting, dancing and making candy to building (and testing) fireworks in the basement. Though none of their skills are apparently driven by talent, they “keep on living in our own happy sort of way," as Vanderhof says in Act 1.
Senior Lois Bachman, a veteran of The Gunnery stage, and senior Layla Walcott, who made her theatrical debut in this production, brought maturity and wit to their leading roles as Penelope “Penny” Sycamore and Martina Vanderhof, respectively, nailing the timing and dry, subtle humor required to balance the comedic whirlwind produced by their fellow cast members. Junior Travis Powell, who played Penny’s husband, Paul Sycamore, and sophomore Max Farrar, who played Mr. De Pinna, practically exploded onto the set in their roles, fresh from their firework-building activities in the basement. Sheridan Curry, the only freshman in the cast, is new to The Gunnery but not to theater, and drew kudos for sustaining the continuous choreography required of her character, Essie. With her unique dance moves, she kept the laughter bubbling along, even when she wasn’t speaking a line.
Senior Barbora Barancikova, who came to The Gunnery this year from Slovakia, said she faced two challenges in her role as Alice, the only member of the Sycamore clan who actually has a real job. The first, she said, was the language barrier, and the second, “learning how to walk down the stairs in high-heeled shoes.” She mastered both in a performance that was charming, particularly when she appeared opposite Gunnery stage veteran and senior Sam Johnson, who played her fiancée, and her boss’s son, Toby Kirby. Veteran Gunnery actors and seniors John Crabtree and Katie Nemergut ably portrayed Toby’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Kirby, and were the perfect foil for the Sycamore’s zaniness. They also brought their own humor to the table when engaging in a word-association game that was a bit too revealing about the state of affairs in their own home.
The production boasted several more newcomers – and scene stealers – among them: junior Alex Zhang, who played the emotionally-wrought cook, Rheba; junior Gianna Russillo, who played the inebriated actress Gay Wellington, a part that put her, literally, under the table; senior Ilya Vasko, who pirouetted across the stage as Essie’s Russian-born dance teacher, Boris Kolenkhov; and senior Sean Douglas, who nearly brought the house down with his surprising turn in Act III as Olga Katrina, The Grand Duchess.
Junior Aris Wang was excited to take on her role as Donna, while sophomore Drew Sutherland served as his own xylophone coach for his role as Essie’s husband, Ed. Senior Julian Marlowe played the straight-faced IRS agent, Henderson, sent to investigate Vanderhof, and joined fellow seniors Gavin Connors and Garrett Coe as the three J-Men sent to arrest Ed for printing and distributing inflammatory messages in packages of Essie’s candy.
Elizabeth Rae Dayton ’08, Director of Dramatic Arts, said the drama society initially planned to put up a small comedy with only a few roles this season. However, once she and producer Sarah Albright realized they had so many wonderful students who were interested in the fall play, they needed to switch productions. “I had actually only read the show. I had never seen it,” Dayton said, noting that she keeps a running list of shows that she would love to direct, and “You Can’t Take It With You” was on it. “There were a lot of characters and it was one of those shows to put on the back burner until we had a lot of kids.”
Even with the number of students who signed on, Dayton had to ask them to go out and recruit more students to fill walk-on roles in the production, which they did. “Kids recruited and we worked with the football schedule, the cross country schedule, and one student who is doing an Independent Study Project,” she said, adding: “I think we had a perfect cast in the end. I couldn’t have asked for anything more. I was really happy with it.”
While Dayton approaches every Gunnery production intentionally, choosing each one to fit the students involved, she also felt the moral of this story was one that deserved attention. “The Sycamore family may seem peculiar at first, but I urge you to look past their out-of-the-box way of life and see the joy with which they live their lives,” she wrote in her director’s note. “Each character in this show has encouraged me to live my life in a happy way, and I hope it does the same for you. When you can, I implore you to choose joy, delight in what you have, and share it with those around you.”
Not only does the play illustrate the importance of being yourself and being happy, it advocates one step further: “Surround yourself with people who do the same,” Albright said.
Faculty member Amy Paulekas was among those who attended the show more than once and described the production as hilarious, well-cast and engaging. “There were a lot of moving parts and that’s what made it as impressive as it was,” she said.
Clearly, the drama society has set the bar high for its winter musical, “Young Frankenstein,” by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan, which is set for February 21‒23 at The Gunnery.