CORVALLIS — “You Can’t Take It With You” is a simple story: Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. A crisis arises and it is resolved.
The family-friendly comedy will be presented by Oregon State University Theatre at 7:30 p.m. May 13-15 and 20-21 at the Withycombe Hall’s main stage theater at 30th Street and Campus Way. The OSU production features light-hearted humor, ballet, blintzes, xylophone music, fireworks, and live kittens and snakes.
Originally produced in 1936, it remains an enduring classic of the American stage and is an example of classic screwball comedy, according to director Marion Rossi.
“The characters are fun and likeable, the story is quirky but plausible, and the message clear without being pedantic,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of plays recently that were a little more amorphous, diffused.
“I found myself in this sort of post-modern, angst-ridden world. I was really sort of glad to choose and do a play that has nice characters and a good message and is straightforward — a story with a beginning, a middle and an end.”
Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s play tells the story of the Sycamore family, a loving bunch of unconventional eccentrics. Everyone from Grandpa to Penny and Paul (his daughter and son-in-law) to their children (Essie and her husband, Ed) does what makes them happy, with little regard for society’s expectations.
Only daughter Alice fails to fully relax because she is worried about the impression her family will make on her new fiance’s family.
When the straight-laced Kirbys show up for dinner at the Sycamores a night earlier than expected, a hilarious chain of events ensues and the young couple’s happiness is challenged.
The original play was turned into a 1939 film starring James Stewart, Jean Arthur and Lionel Barrymore. While the play and film have much in common, said Rossi, “More important are the differences, and there are a number of them.”
It has been a while since Rossi directed a production for OSU. His last was “Spin” in 2008. Last year, he took a sabbatical to do an acting residency with Bag&Baggage professional theater in Hillsboro, where he played the iconic roles of Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” and Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol.” Rossi is teaching several sections of Introduction to the Theater this term.
The OSU production looks and feels great, not surprising considering the experienced leaders behind the project.
OSU theater instructor Elizabeth Helman, who recently starred in the one-woman play “My Name is Rachel Corrie” and directed “A Bright Room Called Day,” is the costume mistress for the play. She will again head up the annual Bard in the Quad performances this summer with a run of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”
Professor George Caldwell, who directed the musical “Pirates of Penzance” last fall, is in charge of sets and lights.
In addition, Rossi took on Robert Leff to be the play’s dramaturg — a role that involves researching the play and the real-world context around the fictional story to guide actors and assure sets and costumes are historically accurate. Leff, who is an expert on Kaufman, one of the play’s co-writers, and on American comedies from 1920-50, is a longtime community theater contributor and wrote and directed “Christmas in Oregon” at the Majestic Theatre last December.
“He keeps me honest,” Rossi said.
“The playwrights didn’t give us a lot of background to the characters,” Leff said. “It’s not that kind of play, so I kind of pieced together my own thinking of who this guy was and I suggest that to the actor and to the director. Whether they use that or not is up to them.”
Kaufman and Hart also wrote “The Man Who Came to Dinner” in 1939.
“Kaufman was a very prolific playwright from about 1921 to 1953,” Leff said. Both Kaufman and Hart were also directors who occasionally would take on projects by other writers, with their most famous projects being the original production of “Guys and Dolls” and “My Fair Lady,” respectively.
“It’s a comedy of characters,” Leff said. “While the characters are lots of fun — and kind of eccentric — underneath the whole play it’s about a very kind and loving family.”
The cast includes 18 students, and OSU speech communication professor Robert Ilitis in the role of Grandpa.
“When it was written in 1936 it was a haven from the Depression and that remains, deep down I think, the appeal of the show. It’s a very warm, loving family. They all have their interests, but when there is a family problem with one of their own, they all sort of rally around that person,” Leff said.
Of all the plays that Kaufman wrote, “You Can’t Take It With You” ran the longest and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1937.
“They are preparing to revive, for the fourth time, the show on Broadway in the fall,” Rossi noted.
“It’s a classic,” Leff said. “I think it’s the great American comedy, because it captures the individual quality that we all admire and it also says something nice about people and getting along.”
Tickets are $12 general, $10 senior, $8 youth/student, and $5 for OSU students. For tickets and information, call 541-737-2784 or see www.oregonstate.edu/dept/theatre.