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THEATER REVIEWS : Chronicle of Family's Delightful Dysfunction : Forget trendy readings. This production of 'You Can't Take It With You' preserves much of the Kaufman-Hart nutty charm.


NEWPORT BEACH — Before Andres Serrano, before Robert Mapplethorpe, even before the McCarthy-era witch hunts against artists, the more innocent 1930s had the Sycamores, the artist-dilettante clan of Moss Hart's and George S. Kaufman's "You Can't Take It With You."

A contemporary staging might play up how this is one family that doesn't know from dysfunctional, because they're all in arrested development. Director Greg Cohen's staging at the Newport Theatre Arts Center, though, isn't interested in trendy readings, and tries good-naturedly to squeeze as much charm as possible from this ultra-charming play.

Besides, this production's anti-trendy trend is right in keeping with Kaufman and Hart. The scribes take pains to explain that while the wealthy visiting family, the Kirbys, are eccentric, they're into fashionable eccentricities, like spiritualism. The Sycamores don't give a jot for what anyone thinks about their loony hobbies.

All, that is, except one Sycamore. While mom Penelope (Jennifer M. Boudreau) is typing her "war play," or sister Essie (Terra M. Shelman) is practicing her pirouettes in the living room, Alice Sycamore (Cynthia A. Meza) actually works, and actually goes out on dates with people, like rich boy Tony Kirby (Rick Erickson). When Tony brings over his starchy parents (Bill Adams and Terri M. Schmidt, both heavy on the starch) to meet the playful in-laws-to-be, it's like dropping David Rockefeller into a Chuck E. Cheese franchise on a Saturday.

This is where many stagings of the comedy lose control, with father Paul (Ron Taylor) setting off fireworks in the basement and the family's drunken actress friend (Ilona Honeyman) sprawling all over the sofa. (Marty Eckmann's set could do with a bit more craziness, though the stuffed animals on the wall are the right idea.)

Cohen commandeers the traffic jams and comic beats so that Alice's dilemma is never clouded over, although you can never believe that she would go for the dullard Erickson makes of Tony. Meza's amusing blend of patience and frustration with a family that refuses to play by the rules makes for a fine center of gravity--and makes comic turns by Shelman, Taylor and Fred H. Ingels that much funnier.

The problem of casting-quality control in community theater isn't pronounced here, though Boudreau is absurdly young for the mother of the family. There's a palpable love for this most charming of Depression comedies, and even though there are pros in this show, it's a love that closely connects with the original meaning of amateur .

* "You Can't Take it With You," Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sunday matinees, 2:30 p.m. Ends April 10. $13-$17. (714) 631-0288. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes. Cynthia A. Meza: Alice Joshua Kaye: Grandpa Jennifer M. Boudreau: Penelope Ron Taylor: Paul Rick Erickson: Tony Terra M. Shelman: Essie Linda S. Williams: Rheba Fred H. Ingels: Mr. De Pinna Erin L. Cooper: Ed Rick D. Watson: Donald Brad W. Smith: Henderson Joseph Palumbo: Boris Kolenkhov Ilona Honeyman: Gay Wellington Bill Adams: Mr. Kirby Terri M. Schmidt: Mrs. Kirby Pierre Burkhart: The Man Jaye Wilson: Olga Katrina Rick Erickson: Tony

A Newport Theatre Arts Center production. Comedy by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. Directed by Greg Cohen. Lights by Larry Davis. Set by Marty Eckmann. Production stage manager: Donna Taylor.

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