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Freedom Versus Bondage

VLT presents the not-so-oddball You Can’t Take It with You

Central to the comic tension of You Can’t Take It With You is a fairly routine dichotomy that, perhaps by its very nature, remains forever unresolved, and which best might be summed up thus: freedom versus bondage.

Of course, freedom and bondage have been at war since before Socrates whispered in Plato’s ear and Jesus put a shellacking on the Pharisees, but in this country we like to imagine capitalism invented the eternal conflict between vile materialism and spiritual liberation — in other words, Wall Street versus Main Street.

And it is precisely here that this baggy, loose-limbed but rather endearing play, now in production at Very Little Theatre, takes aim: As a member of the eccentric Vanderhof clan in New York, Alice Sycamore (Meg Schenk) disrupts her happily disarrayed extended family when she threatens to marry Tony Kirby (Joshua Cummins), the son of a Wall Street executive (Darryl Marzyck as Mr. Kirby) for whom Alice works.

The entire play takes place in the home of this oddball family (the set design by Michael Walker is lovely), where we witness the choreographed chaos of domestic anarchy: Grandpa (Steve Mandell) raises snakes and waxes philosophical about dropping out and tax evasion; dad (Michael Walker) invents new fireworks in the basement with his friend Mr. De Pinna (Aaron Armstrong); mom (Kari Welch) writes melodramatic plays; daughter Essie (Mallorey Ross) is being taught dance by the gruff Russian immigrant Kolenkhov (Robert Williams); and so on.

When the uptight Kirby family visits for dinner, ostensibly to celebrate the betrothal of Alice and Tony, the contrast between the free-spirited ways of the Vanderhof clan and the duty-bound puritanism of the Kirbys drives everything into comic crisis. The crisis is aided and abetted by an investigation by the IRS, a government sting operation and a visit by Kolenkhov’s friend, the Grand Duchess Olga Katrina (Mary McCoy).

The whole situation is very wacky and frantic, but director John Schmor’s staging of this domestic frenzy is admirably cool and clear-headed. Overall, the play is enjoyable, and yet it doesn’t quite achieve the pique of zaniness to which it aspires. Though the cast is strong, some of the performances seem a bit stiff, as though the actors are trying too hard to appear spontaneous.

Part of the problem might be due to the fact that, back in 1936, weirdo boho patchwork families were an oddity, where today they are the norm. The Vanderhofs just didn’t strike me as all that unusual, much less revolutionary. Conversely, if Donald Trump has taught us anything, it’s that greedy corporate dickwads aren’t all sexless prudes like Mr. Kirby.

Nonetheless, VLT’s mounting of You Can’t Take It with You is a worthwhile evening of entrainment, even as a slightly outdated artifact of the continuous struggle to define oneself against the socio-political forces of incorporation and greed. As Grandpa says at one point to the staid Mr. Kirby, “You don’t seem very happy.” His solution to this is to divorce yourself from the perennial madness of things like presidential elections and jobs you hate.

Always good advice, no matter what the century.

You Can’t Take It with You runs through Aug. 13 at Very Little Theatre; $14-$18, tickets and info at thevlt.com or 541-344-7751.