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REVIEW: "You Can't Take It With You" @ Circle Theatre GR

a couple sitting on the roof of a house with fireworks flying out into a sunset.
You Can't Take It With You "Artwork"

You Can't Take It With You is a classic comedic play that never seems to be gone for long. Written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart in 1936, YCTIWY has been adapted countless times over the last 88 years. If I had a dollar for every time a community theater or high school/college drama department put on this play, I would probably have enough money to pay off my student loans. With familiar themes of family, following your heart, and the old saying "money can't buy happiness"; it's no wonder this play has survived for so long. But with its age, there are definitely some wrinkles and saggy skin that are attached to this baggage.

And when we live in a capitalist society that puts pressure on everyone to work themselves to the graves for literal pennies, this play can be a wake-up call to our workaholic friends.

Adding to the long list of theater companies that put on this "classic" is Grand Rapids. I got to see this iteration on opening night 6/13 at Circle Theatre.

The Cast of "YCTIWY": Ben Avery, Emelia Shaw & Michael Dodge standing in front of a house.
The Cast of "YCTIWY": Ben Avery, Emelia Shaw & Michael Dodge

I was hesitant about seeing a show that is so old and wondering how Grand Rapids would try to make it feel fresh and relatable for contemporary audiences, but I went with an open mind and curiosity. After witnessing this production, I will say that I was left feeling unmoved. There were some jokes that landed with me and the folks sitting around me, but I feel like the story lacked depth.

For me, I think this production felt very safe. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't great either. I felt the feeling of going out to a restaurant to eat some food. The entrée looks appealing, but the food is bland, and you're still not full once you finish eating. You don't regret your decision, but you know you aren't going to go back to that dish again. That's how this show feels.

Let's dive into what's happening here and see why I left the theater feeling unsatisfied.

The set (created by David Len) was functional for what it needed to be. YCTIWY takes place in the Sycamore's house. There are no big reveals or surprises. Everything is set and waiting for its cue on the stage. There's no wonder what these things will be used for, which fits for this play because everything felt predictable on that stage.

The costume and hair felt mostly time appropriate for the 1930s. I swear some of those wigs looked like they were probably from 50+ years ago, but I understand that folks gotta make do with what they have. On another note, I will admit it was a nice touch to put the Kirby's in similar all-black attire while the Sycamore and Friends had a variety of colors and patterns to choose from. A nice touch by the costume designer Mackenzie Moira.

The actors did a good job with what material they were given. It feels like everyone in the main family was just a one-dimensional character that was weird just for the sake of being quirky. I don't think it's a fault of the actors or director. It may just be the age of the play beginning to show.

A great example of this is Mr. De Pinna (played by Brian Honeck). Mr. De Pinna was simply a character who lived in the house because he was a man who stopped by and then never left. He has an obsession with fireworks and doesn't add much. His actions are indirectly responsible for a plot point, but it's not by his own doing. The circumstance just happens and everything blows up (literally and figuratively). He's just a weird fellow in a house full of weird people.

The character also feels a little ableist and coded as a person who is on the spectrum. The movements and speech of Honeck felt like it was pushed too far for no good reason. Sure this is a comedy and the entire point of this character is to be weird and out there, but it just feels like it's done in poor taste. Especially because it doesn't add any comedic effect. This role could be depicted in a way that could still be funny and not so exaggerated. 

Again, I think this show is just aging poorly and maybe that's how that character is written. But who knows, this director (Carrie McNulty-Falicki) also directed Sweeney Todd last season and had the ensemble play up the asylum scene in a way that felt unnecessary and cringe-inducing spectacle. Granted, that entire scene is flawed and aged poorly in general, but the choices McNulty-Falicki made for that scene was clearly ableist and perpetuates the stereotype of mentally ill people being loud and chaotic and unhinged. It was simply uncomfortable to sit through and lacked any tact.

Donald and Reba (played by Jhaiell Kilgore and Grace Pilarski) both feel like they are simply there to emphasize how wealthy this family is to have not only this big house but also a maid and handy man on the premises at all times. We are told they are supposed to be dating, but it definitely feels like there is not enough room for them to have chemistry with one another.

Another couple that feels like there isn't strong chemistry is the main couple this story is supposed to revolve around. Alice Sycamore (played by Emelia Shaw) and Tony Kirby (played by Ben Avery) felt like they didn't know each other that well. And I suppose they didn't for most of the play, but the second act drops us in a time skip, and they are suddenly meeting each other's families. This is a particular stress point for Alice. This is supposed to be critical for the "will they/won't they" trope that's happening throughout this story. It doesn't feel like a big stake, which is a problem if that is supposed to be the main conflict of the story.

One major point of YCTIWY is that Alice is embarrassed of her family and their quirks and believes they are the reason she can't find love. Because her family is just "so out there". That feels weird because her family isn't that weird.

On the other hand, Tony has fallen head over heels for Alice, and I can't imagine why. It doesn't feel earned. Ben commits to the bit and really plays up the simp energy that Tony is giving off and makes you think, "awwww, maybe she should give him a chance". That doesn't last long because it feels like these two young lovers get swallowed by the huge ensemble of characters that continue to rotate in and out of every scene. I think some of Shaw and Avery's strongest moments were when they were alone on stage together. I understand why they couldn't have more time. YCTIWY is already a little over two hours with two intermissions. It is unfortunate that we can't spend a bit more time with any of the characters.

Moving along, I do want to highlight two actors who I believe really stole the show and had me glued to them whenever they were on stage.

Sarah Glyszon played the matriarch of the house, Penelope Sycamore. She was warm and charming. Even when she was meddling and had her spoon ready to stir the pot, Sarah acted it with a hint of devious jester that worked to lighten the mood and make each scene a bit more enjoyable.

The other stand out performance was Grandpa Vanderhof played by Michael Dodge. Grandpa Vanderhof is a simple man who wanted to live life in a way that brings him happiness. He loved the people he surrounded himself with and didn't want to have anyone around who would drag down his vibe. Michael played the character with wit and warmness that you don't see from many male characters in theater. He is laid-back, but also has wisdom that he can pull upon to help the other characters find a new way to look at the world. His final monologue with Mr Kirby and the ending prayer had me focused on him to get every drop of wisdom he was willing to share.

Overall, I think the message of this show is cute and simple enough that most people could probably relate. Especially now in a Post-COVID Outbreak world, people are beginning to question "why am I working myself to the bone for corporations that don't care about us" and starting to demand more for themselves.

I love theater and usually leave performances with a sense of wonder and excitement. Or maybe filled with emotions and reflecting on my past actions and finding ways to move into the future with more intention. That wasn't the case with this show. I left feeling neutral. I've seen bad productions, and I've seen great ones too. This one is neither of those things. It feels safe and a little outdated.

Maybe I would suggest this for someone who is a workaholic and needs a night out away from work. And perhaps if the stars align and the moon shines its brightest, the person who can't say no to work would be compelled to reflect and try to have a work/life balance. I could also recommend this to someone who likes watching old black-and-white classic movies. They could get a real treat out of this story/ play.

Other than that, I can't see much appeal for this production. I'm an avid supporter of local/community theater, but this one feels like a stretch, even for me. If Grand Rapids wants to attract new audiences and bring excitement back to the theaters, this is not how you would do it. It is a fine production, but just fine isn't going to be enough to get an audience to come out and spend the money to see it.

I am a believer that theater should be impactful. I love coming to see musicals and plays because most of the time I leave feeling a sense of excitement and wonder. Theatre can be so creative and thought-provoking when done well and telling interesting stories. This is neither of those things and it's unfortunate. Grand Rapids has such great talent and wonderful actors and creatives. I hope that Circle and all the other theaters around West Michigan really think about showcasing new and thought-provoking shows instead of just doing what's "Safe" and "Predictable".


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4 commentaires

This review is irresponsible. You should take it down before it makes BAM's reputation any worse :(

Darius Colquitt
Darius Colquitt
09 juil.
En réponse à

Respectfully: if a community member chooses to share their thoughts in a responsible manner, as this writer has done, we will always welcome it. Just because something is good to one person doesn't mean it's good for everyone. Learning to listen to the opinions of others is the only way artists and communities can grow. Challenge is CRUCIAL to growth. We encourage you to reread the article & reconsider responsibility in the arts.


Thank you for this thoughtful & thorough review!

Darius Colquitt
Darius Colquitt
09 juil.
En réponse à

Thank you for reading it!

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