When You Can't Take It With You opened on Broadway in 1936, it took the theater world by storm, earning a Pulitzer for playwrights George S. Kaufman (a Pittsburgh native and Fifth Avenue High grad) and Moss Hart. It was timely, funny and edgy — just the sort of classic comedy the Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama would select to celebrate its centennial.
Alas, though YCTIWY provided the template for many sitcoms featuring a "normal" but wholesomely sexy daughter in a wacky family (long live The Munsters), it has not aged well. Many contemporary references fall flat: Perhaps the program should have included footnotes explaining such dated ephemera as Kay Francis. The play's Vanderhof family, so charmingly eccentric by 1930s standards, today seems more like a Tea Party collective, if not quite so racist.
Director Barbara MacKenzie-Wood decided to present YCTIWY as a theater artifact, a beautiful and polished museum piece that, although far removed from current cultural sensibilities, nevertheless portended many of them. The production is indeed gorgeous, no surprise given the design talent available to CMU: Pam Lee, set; Emily Chalmers, costume; Yingchao Teng, lighting; and Almeda Baynon, sound; plus stage manager Timothy S. Sutter and dramaturg Emily Anne Gibson.
The large cast is a mixed bag. Many of the characters are obviously much older than the students playing them: I had a tough time sorting out which young man was playing the son-in-law of an equally young man. Some actors had trouble with the lightweight, unrealistic characters. The most successful were those who dove headfirst into the nonsense, chewing and spitting out bits of scenery from both sides of their mouths: e.g. Claire Saunders, doublecast as two extreme visitors, and Michael McGuire, as the overwrought but always hungry Russian émigré. And give a hand to Zanny Laird and Chris Douglass as the thanklessly earnest young lovers.
Though not quite the chucklefest it once was, You Can't Take It With You is an enjoyable cultural milestone, and you won't see a better one than at CMU.