A Singer's Notes by Keith Kibler

A Singer’s Notes 62: Chestnuts (Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take it with You)

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A scene from "You Can't Take it With You" at Hubbard Hall.
A scene from “You Can’t Take it With You” at Hubbard Hall.

We were informed upon entering Hubbard Hall on Saturday evening, that a “chestnut” was on the menu. I like chestnuts. Chestnuts are successes, and they are successes because they work. Moss Hart and George Kaufman’s particular chestnut You Can’t Take it With You is the theme song and battle cry of the 47%. One of the characters, Donald, a kind of serving man, reminds us a couple of times, that he is “on relief,” and the government gets really upset when he works. The government, in fact, is a constant presence in the play, belittled and shrunken and left virtually powerless by the formulations of Grandpa. Everything Grandpa says makes so much gosh-darn sense. Even Trotsky trots in on a borrowed horse as it were, his words printed indiscriminately by slow witted Ed as a kind of hobby. The main goal of the characters seems to be ease, and from that ease a happiness, a belief in some kind of beneficent providence. Grandpa even leads the assembled in two prayers. The trouble is, the daughter Alice falls for somebody in the 1%. And further complicating the fun, one knew that the audience fell in between the 47% and the 1% quite comfortably. In other words, the political (sharply political) bent of Grandpa’s wisdom delighted some around me, and silenced one or two. What does he have to say then, the old man? He says he doesn’t want to pay taxes to a government that doesn’t work. Why do we need ten battleships when six will do? Why spend your life doing something you don’t like to have more money than you need? The old boy is an artist; he understands that it is what you do every day that counts. Absolutely nobody says on their deathbed, “I wish I had a larger boat.” And you know? …his ideas work! The family is strange, and it is happy. The actors’ task is to to make us believe that this way of life is not only good, but possible. It is possibility that the script offers us.

The artists got the tone of it. They took the zaniness of the collected family to heart and did not condescend. There were two really fine performances. I should say three, because Christine Decker played to the nines a drunk actress and a patrician father who has spent his dreary life on Wall Street. She played the father with a serious face and a serious voice. This was not in any way a theatrical trick. Though gender-twisted, her acting of the rich and unhappy Mr. Kirby was the most convincing work on the stage. I saw real pathos in the face and heard it in the strange, almost sexless voice that she came up with. Court Dorsey as Grandpa found the very ease in his acting that he advocated in his philosophy. He made things that most of us would think preposterous seem reasonable. He, with a wry and gentle wrinkle of his face, convinced us of these things. The beautiful old hall was just right as a dilapidated and blessed living space.

A “chestnut” it may be, but it made me believe, for a little while at least.

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