America has been called a melting pot, a place where people of all creeds, colors and philosophies can amalgamate a nation better than the sum of its parts. It's a cliche, of course, but one that endures and has attached itself to our collective consciousness to such an extent that it becomes fact. Henry James famously described the phenomenon of cultural intermixing in New York City as a "fusion, as of elements in solution in a vast hot pot."
"You Can't Take It With You," the Broadway play by George Kaufman and Moss Hart, echoes that New York melting pot narrative. Under the direction of Joi Hoffsommer, it's playing at the Parkland College Theatre.
Set in the summer of 1937 in a typical home on Manhattan's west side, the comedy looks at the life of a typical family living in the Big Apple.
That "typical" family — the Sycamores — is eccentric to say the least. No, let's be honest: The Sycamores are all really, really weird. They spend their days doing what appears to be useless tasks, hang around strangers and foreigners, experiment with pyrotechnics and write plays that have no audience. Corn flakes are the center of their diet.
But the real story is the interaction between these "weird" characters and their "normal" counterparts. How they negotiate their differences and arrive at an understanding is the triumph of this Pulitzer Prize-winning work.
Daughter Alice Sycamore, played by Kenna Mae Reiss, has a respectable job and aspires to marry the son of a wealthy New York financier. Alice's status as the "Marilyn" in this family of Munsters makes her ashamed of their antics relative to the way other people behave.
Playing the main antagonist, Reiss performs a delicate balancing act of gaining the audience's sympathy at her plight while not dismissing her as a snobbish social climber. Her would-be in-laws (played by David Jeckman and Mary Rose Cottingham), have similar misgivings about the Sycamore clan but come off comically as intended.
On the weird side, Alice's mother Penelope, played by Jamey Coutant, is batty and yet endearing, a combination Edith Bunker and Gracie Allen. Penelope's other daughter, Essie, played by Jesse Debolt, is a pirouetting nightmare of confectionary brilliance. Essie's husband Ed (David Weisger), lodger and amateur pyrotechnician, Mr. De Pinna (Chris Guyotte) and Russian emigree Boris Kolenkhov (Lincoln Machula) all add a touch of flare and hilarity in their respective supporting roles.
The play succeeds or fails, however, depending on the portrayal of the patriarchal character, Martin Vanderhoff. The play's chief protagonist lives his life by the philosophy "don't do anything that you're not going to enjoy doing," but he must get that point across as something other than an apology for being lazy. This is something actor Nick Schneider does very well, with a proverbial grandfatherly drawl and sensibility.
Surrounding this substantial cast is a warm and inviting backdrop, a large family room one would expect from a 1930s home. Dressing the stage for the idiosyncracies of the Sycamores had scenic director Thomas Korder adding his-and-her deer mounts (the doe wore a hair ribbon while the buck donned a necktie), various Asian paraphernalia and a nondescript coat of arms. This dash of the haphazard played well against costume choices of Malia Andrus and the musical choices of Evan Forbes.
Best praise is reserved for Hoffsommer. In addition to taking on a period piece, she excelled at choreographing the simultaneous movements of 10 or more active characters.
An excellent blending (or melting) of talents and a performance worth seeing.
If you go
What: Parkland College Theatre presents "You Can't Take It with You" by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, directed by Joi Hoffsommer
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday, Feb. 28-March 2; 3 p.m. March 3
Where: Parkland Theatre, 2400 W. Bradley Ave., C
Tickets: $14 for adults; $12 for students and senior citizens 55 and older; $8 for youths 12 and younger; $10 each for those in groups of 15 or more (tonight is "pay what you can night;" March 1 features half-price tickets)
Reservations: http://www.parkland.edu/theatre; 351-2528
Chad Beckett, a local attorney, has reviewed all manner of performances at local venues for The News Gazette since 1995. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.