School of Drama puts on a classic American comedy in You Can't Take It With You

School of Drama students portray an eccentric range of characters in You Can’t Take It With You. Pictured from left is Alice’s brother-in-law Ed (Mitch Marois), his wife Essie (Michelle Veintimilla), Essie’s ballet teacher Boris (Michael McGuire), and Boris’s friend Olga (Claire Saunders). (credit: Courtesy of Dennis Schebetta) School of Drama students portray an eccentric range of characters in You Can’t Take It With You. Pictured from left is Alice’s brother-in-law Ed (Mitch Marois), his wife Essie (Michelle Veintimilla), Essie’s ballet teacher Boris (Michael McGuire), and Boris’s friend Olga (Claire Saunders). (credit: Courtesy of Dennis Schebetta)

Everyone has that one family member who is a few cents short of a dollar, or is a little eccentric. Imagine having an entire family like that — and then bringing your boyfriend home to meet them.

The shenanigans that ensue are the subject and source of hilarity of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American play being performed in the Philip Chosky Theater in the Purnell Center for the Arts.

Despite the fact that Kaufman is a Pittsburgh native, this play has not been performed on Carnegie Mellon’s campus since 1947. However, as director Barbara Mackenzie-Wood said, “When Peter Cooke asked for suggestions for the 2013–14 season, a year to be spent in celebration of the School of Drama’s 100-year anniversary and the very best of classic American drama, my first thought was that such an undertaking would not be complete without the inclusion of Kaufman and Hart’s -You Can’t Take It With You_. It is the classic American comedy.”

Seeing as the house was packed with a raucous audience at this Saturday’s matinee performance, Mackenzie-Wood’s choice was well founded.

Written in 1936 at the tail end of the Great Depression, You Can’t Take It With You is the heartwarming story of the pandemonium of Alice’s eccentric family meeting her fiancé’s uptight parents. In a time when scarcity was the norm, Alice’s family is more concerned with simple joys than an accumulation of wealth.

As the the program says, “The play was — and is — a slap in the face to the mentality of depression and defeat.”

While the entire cast puts on an excellent performance, certain characters stand out. From the moment the curtain rises, senior acting major Rachel Keller is delightful in her role as Penny, a loving mother who enjoys expressing her artistic side and has been writing plays ever since a typewriter was accidentally delivered to the house. Keller brings her own personal touch to the character, capturing viewers’ attention and making them laugh with her quirky mannerisms and well-timed inflections. The onstage chemistry between Penny and the other family members makes her the cohesive force of the family and a pleasant character to watch.

The character that truly embodies the message of You Can’t Take It With You is Martin Vanderhof, more affectionately known as Grandpa. Senior musical theater major Joey Ventricelli gives a thought-provoking performance while maintaining the comedic tone of the play. Even though he is surrounded by amusing antics, Grandpa manages to keep pace with the younger members of his family through quick, witty quips.

“It was a lot of hard work, very technical, dated. I had to do a lot of research to understand the references that were made in the jokes. But overall it was so much fun to bring this era to life to a modern audience. It was a fun show to be a part of,” Ventricelli said.

An equally comical yet more flamboyant character is Boris Kolenkhov, an ostentatious ex-Soviet turned ballet teacher, brought to life by senior musical theater major Michael McGuire. McGuire enlivens the character with his spot-on Russian accent, animated gestures, and energized delivery. He had the audience enraptured and roaring in laughter, especially in his interactions with endearing Essie (senior acting major Michelle Veintimilla), his aspiring acolyte.

“[The play] was much tougher than you might think because it seems so easy but it’s so precise,” McGuire said. “It’s the hardest play I’ve had to do. It’s pretty special.”
Senior acting major Claire Chapelli, playing the character of snobby, uptight Mrs. Kirby, also saw the task as daunting yet rewarding. “The rehearsal process was challenging because everything was so specific, but it was great to see it on stage and hear the audience laugh. The audience is really like another character,” she said.

Chapelli also mentioned that the props and sets used for this production stay true to the original. The elaborate and colorful sets solidify the late 1930s air — so much so that they elicited applause from the audience when the curtain first rose.

In addition to the period set and props, the experience of seeing the play hearkens back to the decade in which it was originally written and produced. The disembodied voice of a cast member brings the audience into this era with a time-period-appropriate introduction, asking viewers to take note of the fire exits and turn off all cell phones in true 1930s jargon. Furthermore, jazz music serenades the crowd as the scenes transition from one to the next.

Mackenzie-Wood “decided to present this revival as closely as possible to what audiences might have seen at the Booth Theater in New York City in 1936 in the seventh year of the Great Depression” in order to preserve the timelessness of You Can’t Take It With You. Despite the large gap between decades, the cast and crew have created a truly cohesive experience of the time period.

McGuire found putting on a comedy to be a welcome change to the typically darker, more somber repertoire of the School of Drama, giving the 100-year celebration a well-rounded selection.

Senior musical theater major Mitch Marois, who played Essie’s husband Ed, agreed, saying, “The play is heartwarming with a distinct style. It is a good contrast to The Crucible.” The decision to add something different to the usual lineup adds timely variety to the School of Drama’s selection for the 100-year anniversary.

The Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama’s performance of You Can’t Take It With You is a professionally executed production of a timeless American piece. The acting is convincing, inducing both slapstick humor and leaving the audience with a bit of food for thought. The characters’ flamboyant actions and the ornate sets provide visually stimulating entertainment. It is successful across the board, crafting both an accurate portrayal of Great Depression era America and a loveable, quirky family with which audiences can relate.

You Can’t Take It With You will run through Saturday at Chosky Theater.