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THEATER : You Can Take SCR's Latest Effort to Heart

March 07, 1991|DON SHIRLEY | Don Shirley covers theater for The Times.

The revival of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's "You Can't Take It With You," as directed by Warner Shook at South Coast Repertory, is a comedy that you want to take home with you. If only every crazy family could be this much fun, we would all want a piece of the craziness.

Alice (Robin Goodrin Nordli), the pivotal character in the plot, has some of the same mixed feelings about her family that Kaufman reportedly had about his own relatives, on whom much of the play is based. She loves them, but how can she bring home her boyfriend (David Drummond) to meet this clan?

Her grandpa (Robert Cornthwaite) retired 35 years ago and devotes his time to commencement exercises, pet snakes and ignoring the Internal Revenue Service. Her father (Richard Doyle) makes firecrackers in the basement with the erstwhile iceman (Gibby Brand). Her mother (Kelly Jean Peters) started writing plays years ago, when a typewriter was delivered by mistake--and hasn't finished one yet.

Then there is Alice's sister (Lynne Griffin), a would-be ballet dancer who earns a few bucks making candy that her dim husband Ed (John Ellington) hand-delivers. Into each candy box Ed inserts a fortune cookie-style slip of paper, bearing an inflammatory political slogan--not because he's a zealot but because he likes the way the words look when he prints them on his little press.

Throw in a flamboyant Russian ballet teacher (Paul Keith), a drunken actress (Jane A. Johnston) who wants to read Mama's plays, and a Russian duchess who's now a New York waitress (Joan Stuart-Morris), and you wonder how the household domestic (Cynthena Sanders) and her live-in boyfriend (Mark Conley) keep the house in any semblance of order.

Alice not only has to introduce the gang to her beau, but also to his father, her own boss (John-David Keller) and his wife (Penelope Windust). The very idea makes her blanch.

Nordli blanches beautifully, but then, everyone in the cast is beyond reproach. Shook has guided this play's comic rhythms to perfection.

Cornthwaite is absolutely calm and centered as the philosophical anchor of this scatterbrained bunch, a vibrant voice for the writers' philosophy that individuals will do all right if institutions--from Wall Street to Washington to Moscow--leave them alone.

This is hardly a profound message, and the play raises a few questions or contradictions that aren't resolved. For example, how does this family--and its assorted hangers-on--put food on the table? With Grandpa's modest income from real estate and Alice's secretarial job?

It must have been delightful for a Depression-era audience to be able to ignore such questions, and it was rather audacious of the playwrights to do so. They had other priorities, such as reminding their audience that there is more to life than putting food on the table.

This isn't just a quaint period piece, but the designers do treat the period with the lavish respect that's customary at South Coast. Michael Devine's set is a baroque construction of reddish-brown furniture and gewgaws, and Michael Roth's selection of tunes for the moments before, between and after the acts is ingenious.

Don't dart for the door at the final curtain or you'll miss the cast's rendition of "Look for the Silver Lining," a perfect little coda.

What: George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's "You Can't Take It With You."

When: Through April 5. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday matinees, 2:30 p.m.

Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

Whereabouts: San Diego Freeway to Bristol Avenue exit. Bristol to Town Center Drive, one block east of South Coast Plaza and across the street from the Performing Arts Center.

Wherewithal: $23 to $30.

Where to Call: (714) 957-4033.

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