Monday, December 08, 2008

Play: Old-Fashioned

You Can't Take It With You by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, Directed by Warner Shook, Seattle Rep through 3 January.

The holiday season is the time for the "safe play" - the crowd pleaser, the innocuous bit of Americana, the stirring musical, the thing you can take visiting family to. And so with the more darkly aggressive boom playing in its sister theater, we have this venerable old soldier from 1936 heaved onto the holiday fire.

And it is interesting because of what it says about how theatre has changed in the past seventy-some years. You notice two things - how slight the story itself is, strung through three acts, and how many PEOPLE there are.

This is a WPA project of a play - 18 actors, 15 of which are Equity, a sizable chunk of them onstage at the same time that requires less of a director and more of a traffic cop. In this era of one-person shows and small productions, this is a reminder of what theater in the past century was like - big, brassy, and crowded. Sort of like experiencing a big band after years of jazz trios. The sense of scale impresses.

That said, the story is slight. Young girl with daffy, eccentric family loves young boy with straitlaced, wealthy parents. It follows a three act structure - Act One we get to know the endearing wacky family and the girl's fears. Act Two the girl's fears are realized as the parents show up on the wrong day to discover the wacky family. Act Three we get the girl and the boy out of the tree, there are some good speeches about happiness and revelations pulled out of the hat and everyone goes home feeling fine.

Yeah, it sounds like an episode of Monday night TV on CBS, and this is revelatory as well - much like photography removed from art the requirement to be representational (kicking off what we call Modern Art), the presence of television has removed from theater the public need for this type of story. And as a result, theater has gone in other directions, and evolved into new (and often less-mainstream) niches.

But here we have a staple of straw hat and high school productions - how does the Rep handle it? Very well indeed, from the viewpoint of raw craftsmanship. The stage is a cluttered, livable, open space for the cast to prowl about in. There are numerous doors to slam and chairs to lower one slowly and comically down upon. The pacing is also great, with flurries of activity scaled down to personal moments. And the cast is throwing as many comic flourishes as the audience can handle.

The actors also bring more to the table, and their characters, even though created with the broadest of brushes, are invested with more depth than you get from the standard staging. Young Male Ingenue (Ben Hollandsworth) summons the spirit of a young Jimmy Stewart, Young Female Ingenue (Elise Karolina Hunt) is equal parts of love and embarrassment for her family comes through, and the incredible flurry of the family works. Everyone gets into their character - so much so that at one point, Grandpa's dart-playing finesse (a bit of business from Michael Winters) upstages the lines of the Russian Revolutionary Dance teacher (Farnk Corrado) (a slip-up in an otherwise effective handling of all the stage business and keeping the audience focused in the midst of the controlled chaos).

But in the end, we have resuscitated and reanimated a beast from Broadway's past, a bit of nostalgia, lacking any deeper message, well produced but as slight as an ingenue's smile. By the same token, they were playing for a full house, so they might just be on to something.

More later,