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Grand Rapids Circle Theatre stages "You Can't Take It With You"

Grand Rapids Circle Theatre's production of You Can't Take It With You stars a terrific, fizzy ensemble.

/Grand Rapids Circle Theatre

Humor tends to age like avocados. Start reading "Our American Cousin," the comedic play Abraham Lincoln was watching when John Wilkes Booth assassinated him, and you’ll soon realize that there are worse things than getting shot.

That’s true of everything, of course. Time passes and tastes change (when’s the last time you listened to “Yes! We Have No Bananas,” the number one hit of 1923?), but humor’s particularly vulnerable. Which makes it all the more impressive when anything stays funny. Oscar Wilde managed the feat. P.G Wodehouse, too. And there’s "You Can’t Take It With You."

The play, onstage at Grand Rapids Circle Theatre through June 29, premiered in 1936. Funny then and funny now, it features a family of eccentrics: Paul, a firework-obsessed husband and father (Russell Roozeboom); his playwriting (and possibly sex-obsessed) wife, Penelope (Sarah Glyszon); Penelope’s father, Martin (Michael Dodge), who’s never bothered to pay taxes; Paul and Penelope’s childlike daughter, Essie (Hannah McNulty), who makes candy and dances with great enthusiasm and little skill; and her husband, Ed (Troy Harvey), an amateur printer and xylophone player.

And that’s not even to mention Mr. De Pinna (Brian Honeck), the iceman who showed up eight years ago and never left. Or Rheba (Grace Pilarski), the cook. Or Donald (Jhaiell Kilgore), who cheerfully avoids work. Or Boris (Walt Riegler), the Russian dance instructor who—look, it’s a lot of people, OK? And into this madness, young Alice (Emelia Shaw) will be introducing her beau, Anthony (Ben Avery). Does she seem nervous? Well, wouldn’t you?

Much more elegantly than I have here, the play introduces its characters, allowing us time to marvel at their eccentricities before ratcheting up the action. I watched it alongside Gemma, my eleven-year-old. We were never bored. And we laughed aloud several times. Gemma, incidentally, said she most identified with Alice. “I’m the sanest one in this family,” she said.

Ensembles work best when there are no weak links and, remarkably, that was the case here. It felt sometimes like watching a basketball team with a strong rapport and a complete willingness to pass the ball. Everyone got their shot at the basket.

Who dunked with the most panache? McNulty, for sure. Her dancing, joyous and bonkers as a toddler’s, drew huge laughs. Shaw invested Alice with vaults’ worth of charm. Riegler had every opportunity to ham it up. Thankfully, he embraced each one. And Dodge hummed with a quietly benevolent authority.

88 years after its premiere, "You Can’t Take It With You" isn’t in the least antique. Instead, it’s a party. Catch it while you can.


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