“You Can’t Take”
“The Curious Incident”
for a “Tail! Spin!”
with all those “Bubbles”
by TONY VELLELA
It’s rare indeed when the hunger of a starvation situation can be satisfied by a serving of a souffle. In this [admittedly very tortured] metaphor, the hunger causing the starvation is the lack of solid, intelligent, witty and non-puerile comedy, and the souffle is the revival of “You Can’t Take It With You.”
This 1936 classic by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, its story cradled in the ravages of the Depression, managed to provide much more than 155 minutes of pleasant diversion, like a bright new jacket that covers the threadbare garments beneath. If you open it, its sturdy, all-purpose lining insures that its wearer will be ready for whatever a changeable, unforgiving climate might deliver.
The Vanderhof family, all three generations, fill a rambling brownstone in Washington Heights, around the corner from Columbia University. Patriarch Martin, [the disarmingly sonorous James Earl Jones], who has probably seen his sixties come and go, presides in the gentlest possible manner over all those who reside here, many of whom are relatives. They include his daughter Penny Sycamore, [a delightfully flighty Kristine Nielsen], who spends many hours pounding away at the keys of a typewriter that was delivered twelve years ago by mistake. She is now at work on her eleventh play, none of which have ever been produced. Penny’s husband Paul, [Mark Linn-Baker], currently partnered with one of their boarders, a Mr. DePinna [Patrick Kerr], in a quest to create the perfect fireworks display pieces. The basement serves as their workshop. The Sycamores are blessed with two daughters, aspiring, no-talent ballerina Essie [an effervescent Annaleigh Ashford], who creates home-made candies called Love Dreams, and the black sheep of the brood, young Alice, [Rose Byrne, in her Broadway debut, the only casting misfire, leaning far too much on screwball-comedy exaggerated mannerisms], who holds down a conventional office job in a financial institution, the very type that Martin walked away from thirty-five years ago, to pursue the joys of daily living, and counts snake-collecting and visiting circuses and commencement exercises as among his favorite pastimes.
Rounding out the household are Essie’s xylophone-player, printing-press aficionado husband Ed, and the cook, Rheba. This is the type of family most ten-year-olds wish they were part of, where no one judges anyone else, where dinner consists of watermelon, corn flakes and Essie’s candies.
Life was rolling along its merry way until a serious affliction levels Alice – she falls blindingly in love with Tony Kirby, vice-president of the firm where he and Alice both work. And Alice must try to calibrate exactly how to introduce Tony [a charming Fran Kranz], not to mention his parents, to her carefree clan, without losing him. Despite how deeply she loves her family, their long-term guests, and the assorted collection of free spirits and dedicated devotees of all things libertarian, she is fully aware that they are an acquired taste.
Other visitors drift in and out. There’s Gay Wellington, the pie-eyed, down-at-heels, dipsomaniacal actress Penny brings home from a chance meeting on the cross-town bus, who is portrayed by the brilliant Julie Halston, in a performance worthy of a special Tony Award for most memorable exit. Elizabeth Ashley makes a meal and a half out of her role as the flamboyant Russian ex-patriot countess Olga, who trades her blintzes-making skills for a friendly shelter. And in yet another display of his versatility, Reg Rogers ignites his role as Boris, ballet master who shamelessly encourages Essie.
I know! It’s a lot to take in! But this is where and how this production, blending the especially gifted talents of director Scott Elis, and designers David Rockwell [sets], Jane Greenwood [costumes], Donald Holder [lighting] and Jon Weston [sound], keeps all the balls in the air as though inflated with helium. The dialogue doesn’t project out over the footlights; it floats, each hilarious line wafting out for a delighted audience to savor.
Complications? They include threatening visits from G-Men, ill-timed arrivals of Tony’s parents for a dinner party; explosions from the basement; Treasury agents out to collect back taxes going back for decades, and worst of all, a lover’s quarrel that could break apart our lovely love story couple. And when all comes together as it should and does, the deeper messages of honoring your bliss, respecting others and eschewing the reverance for money all come through, strong and sweet.
And in case any contract conflicts look to prevent an extended run for this Pulitzer Prize-winning classic, permit me to suggest a few possible second-cast choices: to replace Jones as the family’s beloved leader, Ed Asner; to inhabit the role of Penny, the priceless Marylouise Burke; Valerie Harper can gesticulate with great gusto as Countess Olga, and to fill the lovers’ spots, Bobby Steggert, and from the cast of the recent revival of ‘The Cripple of Inishmaan,’ Sarah Greene. Something this good – no this great – should not be permitted to disappear until every man, woman and teen-ager gets to see it. Twice.
Keep your eyes on his hands. As Broadway newcomer Alex Sharp ignites the character of Christopher in the Simon Stephens stage adaptation of the Mark Haddon novel “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” he seems instinctively to know that young people who present somwhere along the autism spectrum have involuntary hand gestures that punctuate their speech. This is a small story, on its surface. In a London suburb, a dog is discovered dead, impaled on a garden pitchfork. Some suspect the boy next door, an outsider who exhibits strange behavior traits, can’t tolerate physical contact, carries a heightened sense of justice and who has some negative history in the neighborhood.
While the basics do not warrant an episode on the best television procedurals, the value is in the telling. Proving she can weave intricate details of fact and fantasy together to create stage magic when she helmed “War Horse,” director Marianne Elliott matches that virtuoso accomplishment here, again using diverse elements and disbelief-suspension techniques. Christopher’s mind operates inside layers of abstract formulas, well beyond the ken of the most learned minds. How, then does a theatrical experience do justice to the intricacies of this young man’s brain functions, while at the same time making it possible, even somewhat accessible, for an audience-member who barely passed high school algebra to absorb what the story is about?
For a start, the audience is asked to fill in most of the routine details on its own – in a playing area with nothing more than several white rectangular stool/cube pieces, graph paper layouts projected onto all walls and floor areas, and an underlay of LED lights that can translate sketchings and illustration drawings into dazzling displays. Christopher speaks the English language with the attention to precise meanings that a linguist might, in conversation with HAL, the Space Odyssey computer-in-charge. He does not tolerate sloppy wordplay. And like many autistic adolescents, his social skills are negligible. The current ABC Television sitcom “The Middle” does showcase the acting of Atticus Shaffer as the youngest child, Brick, also a social misfit and an intellectual wizard. One uses careless phrasing or imprecise descriptions at one’s peril with him.
Finding the person or persons responsible for the murder of the dog becomes Christopher’s obsession. He assumes what he believes are the characteristics of a sleuth on a case, without knowing how to interact properly or with any degree of subtlety. He seems to possess a form of eidetic memory, lasting well into his teen years. However, his clumsy inquiries turn him into a prime suspect. And all the while, he is batting back the intrusive disruptions to daily life caused by the dissolution of his parents’ marriage, and the subsequent wrangling over custody of the boy.
Experiencing “Curious Incident” is rather like what happens when an untrained eye takes a first look through a very powerful microscope, at a drop of water – galaxies of activity, explosions of color and movement, innumerable points of light and no clear conclusions present themselves.
The skills here present among all the creators rarely come together as they do here – it’s possible to harken up previous theatrical moments that also stirred the senses – such as the moments between Peter and the horses in “Equus,” or the parade of the animals during the opening moments of “The Lion King.” Playwright Stephens interjects self-referential elements, such as a visual reference to the constellation Canus Major [we're looking for the killer of an important dog, remember]. But here, instead of isolated moments, these ‘moments’ are more than separate events, large or small – they just keep occurring, again and again, and what is most impressive, most rewarding, most satisfying is that they are cumulative. Each one furthers the telling of the story, and the evolution of Christopher’s mind, and sensibility. In its most accurate definition, the production is wonderful – full of wonder.
Not everyone knows how to traffic in correct use of language. And it is that imperfection that playwright Mario Correa latched on to in crafting “Tail! Spin!” Correa has mined the transcripts of press conferences, Congressional hearings, television talk show comments and media interviews to stitch together the lamentable misfortunes of four political animals – Florida Congressman Mark Foley, Idaho Senator Larry Craig, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and New York Congressman Anthony Weiner. Director Dan Knechtges keeps shuffling and re-shuffling the deck, and with the exception of relying unwisely on staging crucial moments far downstage, gives each player his moment in the glare of the spotlight.
During a brisk seventy-five minutes, at the Lynn Redgrave Theatre at Culture Project, and with an imposingly large American flag as its backdrop, this is a take-no-prisoners pastiche of personal misbehavior that torpedoed the political fortunes of four prominent men, and tarnished those around them. Each one demonstrates an amazing aptitude for pulling myriad ‘what-were-they-thinking’ stunts. Is it possible that men who control how media operates can be so mind-numbingly clueless to the way every word, every text, every e-mail, every tweet and every sexting image lives forever, out there, just waiting to be viewed and reviewed by friends and enemies alike, providing enough fodder for any opponent to score points with?
Four on-target actors – Arnie Burton, Sean Dugan, Tom Galantich and Nate Smith – bring the culprits to life, and fill out the roles of assorted staffers, interviewers and talking heads, while the fearless Rachel Dratch makes certain that we also see the various women who all play supporting roles in these lascivious lives, their wives, their assistants, their mistresses and Barbara Walters.
America’s appetite for skewering political figures is unquenchable. “Tail! Spin!” will satisfy those cravings nicely, and it would seem to be logical that this bill-of-fare would receive a strong reception down in D.C.
From dirty politics to good, clean fun – nothing beats the Gazillion Bubble Show. While it may seem like an entertainment ready-made for children only, this time the parents can experience just as much enjoyment as the offspring.
This worldwide phenomenon recently celebrated its 3,000th performance in New York’s New World Stages, and there is definitely cause for celebration. The feats accomplished here combine science and art, resulting in a series of magical moments. The outward elements are simple enough: a liquid soap mixture, and an array of wands with circular appendages with diameters that range from a few inches wide to several yards. Dip the wand into the liquid, swish it through the air and Ta-da! Bubbles!!
While that in itself can generate genuine awe, it is the variations on that theme that make for memorable moments. During the course of the seventy-five minute show, 23-year old Melody Yang, [daughter of the Gazillion Bubbles creator Fan Yang], bubbles appear in larger and larger sizes, exemplifies poetry in motion, as she inserts small bubbles into bigger ones, encases five-year-old volunteers from the audience in a shimmering bubble cage, and swirls elongated bubbles into forms that resemble the underwater creatures in the underwater creature feature “The Abyss.”
Sandwiched between the creation of on-stage bubbles galore are videos on multiple screens that recall how Yang family members shattered Guinness World Records, such as the world’s largest [7.5 feet in circumference], created in Berlin in 1997, in Hollywood also in 1999, the most bubbles inside bubbles, a total of nine concentric bubbles inside each other, and in Wavrin, France, in 2000, Yang’s youngest daughter managed to slide inside a gigantic bubble without having it burst apart. Another record was logged when one hundred people found themselves inside a bubble, played out on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2008.
At one point, Melody relates the quandry they faced while visiting friends Hawaii, who lamented their frustration at never experiencing a snowstorm. When the tale concluded, the theatre was plunged into total darkness for fifteen seconds. When the lights returned, the stage had been transformed into a lovely garden, with every surface covered by tiny bubbles, as a rapid stream of said bubbles cascaded out into the audience, amid squeals of unbridled ecstasy emanating from children of all ages. The volunteer children were rewarded with soap bubble hats [that withstood their journeys back to their seats, as well as packages of the secret bubble liquid that could be tried at home.
Following the wrap-up of that section of the show, Melody proceeded to call up light show lasers, which she played with, and used them to create new visual images. Overall, the Gazillion Bubble Show is good, very clean fun for the entire family.
A pair of indomitables are worth noting: the whirlwind actor Angela Lansbury and the legendary diva Lypsinka, aka John Epperson. First, Dame Angela. For those readers who were not able to make it to New York for the 2009 acclaimed revival of 'Blithe Spirit,' you missed seeing her in the role of psychic extraordinaire Madame Arcati, a role previously done by Mildred Natwick and Geraldine Page. Happily, a cross-country tour of the production launches in mid-December at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles, then moving on, to San Francisco, Toronto winding up at the National, in Washington, DC in late March. Details are available at www.BlitheSpiritThePlay.com . . . Meanwhile, Epperson's Lypsinka re-visits the stage in a trio of productions, 'Lypsinka! The Boxed Set," "The Passion of the Crawford," and "John Epperson: Show Trash," running in rep from 11/5 through 1/3/15, at the Connelly Theater in the East Village . . . and finally, a third female icon, the character Heidi Holland, in Wendy Wasserstein's "The Heidi Chronicles," comes alive again, in a revival starring Elisabeth Moss, starting in early February, helmed by Tony-winning director Pam MacKinnon.
Movie fans will be familiar with the 1938 screen adaptation of 'You Can't Take It With You," Frank Capra's Oscar-winning picture, which starred Jean Arthur, James Stewart and Lionel Barrymore. Many other memorable films started as Broadway plays or musicals, and the Jerry Roberts comprehensive volume "The Great American Playwrights on the Screen" chronicles dozens of great adaptations by great playwrights, such as Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill and Neil Simon . . . a different sort of compendium allows you to peek behind the curtain of nearly sixty Broadway and off-Broadway productions that opened during the 1967-68 season. Compiled by William Goldman, with an introduction by Frank Rich, "The Season - A Candid Look at Broadway" not only presents all the basic information about the titles it covers, but also adds critical commentary as a bonus . . . not quite as precocious as Christopher in "Curious Incident," the malicious little girl of Maxwell Anderson's "The Bad Seed" makes for some engrossing reading into the damaged mind of a child criminal.
TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS theatre documentary series "Character Studies." His award-winning play "Admissions" is published by Playscripts. ArtAge Press publishes his play "Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre." Mr. Vellela has written about the performing arts for more than forty years, in a variety of publications, including The Christian Science Monitor, Dramatics Magazine, Parade, Rolling Stone and the Robb Report. He teaches theatre-related classes at the 92nd Street Y [info at 92Y.org/InSession], along with small group theatre studies and coaching sessions from his home.