‘You Can’t Take It With You’: PPF goes back to the future

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Something to take away from the Providence Players of Fairfax’s remounting of “You Can’t Take It With You”: Follow your bliss.

That’s what this ragtag troupe has been doing season after bloody season since 1998. Nobody’s in it for the money.

Born of parents busy fundraising for their elementary school-age kids’ arts education, PPF may still, technically, be a loose-knit bunch of amateurs. But the distance they’ve traveled since that inaugural take on this Great Depression-era, anti-materialism comedy – from a school gym where patrons sat on the floor or in folding chairs to the plush venue at the historic James Lee Community Center — has gained them strong currency in the arts community. With this enhanced reprisal, they enter their 15th season a well-seasoned, close-knit family of high achievers.

Says Chip Gertzog, PPF co-founder and “Can’t Take It” director: “This play was complicated and scary back in 1998. … We were hoping just to remember our lines and blocking without embarrassing ourselves.” He wanted to revisit the “boffo show,” he says, “not only as a celebration of our heritage … but as a yardstick of how far we have come.”

Martin Vanderhof, or Grandpa (John Coscia), has dots on his tie and a few tricks up his sleeve. (Photos by Chip Gertzog)

Consider: They’ve grown from two dozen novice stage-crafters to 100-plus veterans still actively recruiting and welcoming newbies into the fold. In 1998, they had eight theatrical lights; today’s production is lit with more than 50 instruments, including two working chandeliers and vintage lamps.

One constant of PPF shows: extravagantly detailed sets, overseen by design/construction genius John Coscia. -Their unveiling is typically set to a thoughtful soundtrack, in this case engineered by Barbara Gertzog, that invites pre-show audience engagement.

Contributing to the cozy clutter of the “Can’t Take It” residence — partly decorated by Coscia’s wife, Lisa Church, who last lent her expert touch for the 1998 blast-off production — are no fewer than 20 framed art pieces, a bulging curio cabinet, four implied rooms, three implied levels, ornate antiques, a radiator, and clocks, namely a grandfather and a working cuckoo — befitting the Vanderhof/Sycamore household whose zany inhabitants dance and dally as if possessed. Their mutually exclusive, singular obsessions collide in predictable pandemonium, all supervised and somehow subsidized by Grandpa — played by the troupe’s standby sage, Coscia himself.

Essie Carmichael (Andra Whitt) hopes to pencil in baby-making with husband Ed (Jimmy Gertzog), who dabbles in home printing and is obsessed over fonts — something that might have been cryptic to a 1930s audience but that most modern desktop publishers can relate to. (Photos by Chip Gertzog)

If it sounds a bit incestuous, the back-story drama doesn’t end there. Gertzog’s son and theatrical heir, Jimmy Gertzog, one of the prepubescent benefactors of the original PTA-funded show, today steps into the role his dad played in 1998: resident numskull and xylophone player Ed Carmichael. The elder Gertzog says Jimmy was instrumental in his musical coaching back then, teaching him one repetitive tune. Jimmy’s Ed shows a fluid range of ding-dong dexterity.

Truly, a family affair.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning piece, by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman (a program boo-boo miscredits the work to a “David” S. Kaufman), itself runs on black-sheep-in-the-family values. Think “The Addams Family” meets “All in the Family.”

Household cook Rheba (workhorse actress Elizabeth Pfeiffer) and Alice Sycamore (Katie Brown) fuss over dinner. (Photos by Chip Gertzog)

Alice Sycamore (a delicious Katie Brown, real-life daughter to cast member Beth Hughes-Brown) seems the only “normal” one among an embarrassingly offbeat clan of non-conformists. Patriarch Grandpa rails with Archie Bunker verve against the government’s take-take-take policies, giving not so much as a hat tip to what he receives as a taxpayer.

Make that would-be taxpayer. Grandpa represents something of a retirement activist, having walked away from the workforce 35 years before with no regrets. In his spare time, which is all of the time, he pursues hobbies such as attending commencements and offering non-career advice to random people on the street.

Any college graduates out there who are facing crippling debt and few job prospects: Might pay to pay attention.

Penny Sycamore (Sara Evans Bennett) finds inspiration everywhere she looks. (Photos by Chip Gertzog)

Alice’s stage mother, Penny Sycamore (Sara Evans Bennett), is an accidental playwright who fawns over all that moves in and out of her sphere (aka the stratosphere) but especially her daughters — the other a late-blooming, hyperactive ballerina (Andra Whitt) who dabbles in candymaking. Alice’s father, Paul Sycamore — a lifeless Mike Dazé compared with Evans Bennett’s infectious dottiness — is an underground fireworks pioneer. The rest of an assortment of nutty characters is, in the immortal words of Forrest Gump, “like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get.”

The plot spins around Alice, who doesn’t want to live here anymore. She gets a chance to run away from the circus at home by marrying into a respectable family. That is, until plans to have her potential in-laws over for dinner threaten to go up in smoke. Interestingly, Susan Kaplan, who plays her would-be mother-in-law, Mrs. Kirby, was cast as Alice in the troupe’s first production. The brazen Joe Gargiulo also repeats his hot ice-man performance as Mr. DePinna, even if he slips on the accent.

Essie Carmichael (Andra Whitt) has all the right moves. (Photos by Chip Gertzog)

Four actress pillars — Brown, Hughes-Brown, Evans Bennett and Whitt — form the sparkling foundation of this farce, each a confection for the senses. Strains of the pre-show “Pennies From Heaven” segue into our introduction to Evans Bennett’s Penny, who underscores the show’s comedic cadence, while Essie’s flitting-about creates a rhythmic visual tapestry even without music (that we can hear). Though she’s acting the delusional dancer, Whitt raises the bar with unmatched artistry. And Evans Bennett simply commands the stage from the first light cue.

Costume designer Robbie Snow drives the dottiness home with a literal transference of polka-dots, bouncing from player to player. At first, the dots serve to connect the characters while underlining their disconnection from reality; by the third act, Snow’s flaky motif signals a “changing-spots” trick. (Was Snow somehow inspired by the preschooler classic “Put Me in the Zoo,” by Robert M. Lopshire, in which a magic leopard spreads his spots around while trying to make sense of the world/zoo?)

A rivalry between Boris Kolenkhov (Craig Geoffrion), left, and Mr. Kirby (David Patrick), seated, spices up a parlor game. Seated at right is Mrs. Kirby (Susan Kaplan, who played Alice in the troupe’s 1998 production). In background, Tony Kirby (Christopher Schwartz) and Penny Sycamore (Sara Evans Bennett) try to referee. (Photos by Chip Gertzog)

Hughes-Brown, as the fizzy Gay Wellington, doesn’t appear until the second act but makes up for lost stage time. Her sizzle as a washed-up diva adds serious sexpot foam; on the night in question, middle-aged male patrons literally craned their necks for a peep show.

One patron was overheard saying: “This is better than ‘SNL’ ”

But the younger Brown is the show’s true firecracker. According to her bio, her entrée to theater was as a techie running a follow spot. She needs no spotlight. She glows like a 1940s starlet — a veritable Vivien Leigh or Lauren Bacall in the making. From the moment Brown elegantly lighted upon the stage, an eye-catching Southern belle in sun-catching hat, blue chiffon, scarlet hair and white gloves, this reviewer was glued in a grin. And good God, can that gal wear a dress. Scenes between her and romeo Tony Kirby (an adorable Christopher Schwartz) triggered genuine goosebumps.

Tony Kirby (Christopher Schwartz) and Alice Sycamore (Katie Brown) tingle. (Photos by Chip Gertzog)

Schwartz’s precocious and genteel charm gently cradles the work’s conscience, which darts from timeless political commentary — is it no coincidence that its anti-capitalist, anti-government, revolutionary rhetoric resonates at the peak of a disillusioned campaign season? — to not-so-dated nationalism (Craig Geoffrion kills as a transplanted Ruskie impresario, Essie’s ballet instructor). A masterful David Patrick sells his uptight Mr. Kirby with exacting force and friction. And Bill VanderClute, breaking color barriers as a white Donald, is fluent in body language.

Any overwrought themes are upstaged by sheer levity wrought by director Gertzog both on- and offstage. He squeezes each laugh line and pratfall for full reward — except, perhaps, the title zinger, which gets lost in Coscia’s often-unfocused delivery.

The message, though, is clear from the laugh lines on the faces of players themselves, notwithstanding a period-perfect job of makeup and hair by Beth Harrison: Materialism is lunacy. On this planet, love and laughter reign.

Take it from community activists who have turned one non-profit benefit a generation ago into something that enriches not just their theater-scholarship recipients but neighbors seeking to escape the maddening crowd.

For those who can’t take it anymore, for the love of theater, go.

Ticket and performance info:

“You Can’t Take It With You” runs through Nov. 3, on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets may be ordered online at www.providenceplayers.org by e-mailing providenceplayerstickets@cox.net, by phone at 703-425-6782 or at the door.
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