FOR ALL I know there are sound biological reasons why no one reads Proust at the beach. It is said that people do not want to think when their skin starts sticking to the car seat. The intellectual rigors of ice-fishing season are too much, it seems, and the mind needs a rest. Thus, summer has become known as the season of comedy, of effervescent entertainment and endless television reruns.
Ever mindful of what people want, the Guthrie begins its second season under artistic director Joe Dowling with George Kaufman and Moss Hart's paean to idiocy, You Can't Take It With You. Written in 1936, just after the Great Depression, Kaufman and Hart's comedy falls into that great American tradition of works that seek to level the playing field between the rich and the poor by assuring us that most rich people are miserable, workaholic drones who have forgotten how to enjoy life's simple pleasures. In this disingenuous scenario, the poor are the only ones who have their values straight. Released from the tyranny of ambition and the temptations of disposable income, the indigent are free to enjoy life; the rich, in contrast, are doomed to lives of shallow, Protestant despair.
Case in point, the Sycamores: a family of loveable, numbskull eccentrics. They eat cornflakes for dinner and gleefully immerse themselves in hobbies for which they show absolutely no aptitude. Provided with food and shelter courtesy of the family's iconoclastic patriarch, Grandpa (Robert Prosky), the Sycamores are free to remain children at heart. Storywise, the play has much in common with an average episode of The Munsters. The family's one "normal" member, Alice (Michelle O'Neill), has accepted the marriage proposal of Tony Kirby (Lee Mark Nelson), her wealthy boss's son. The families have yet to meet, but when they do the anticipated hilarity ensues.
Awful productions of You Can't Take It With You are legion, mostly because companies tend to go over the top with the Sycamores' endearing screwiness. Director Douglas C. Wager, imported from Washington D.C.'s Arena Stage, has the good sense to rein in the farce. It helps, too, that the stage is graced with a number of outstanding individual performances. Sally Wingert is in especially fine comic form as Penelope, the family's would-be playwright; Richard Iglewski puffs up the role of the Russian ballet teacher Boris Kolenkhov into a show-stealer; and Robert Prosky's snowy-bearded, benevolent mug lends an air of dignified amusement to the whole fracas.
Amusing as it may be, however, in the great Guthrie scheme of things, You Can't Take It With You is little more than a low-budget crowd-pleaser. The set, a simply furnished living room with a staircase in back, looks as though it were put together piecemeal out of furnishings from a dozen other Guthrie productions. And the overall performance brings to mind at least a handful of other similarly middle-of-the-road drawing-room comedies seen in recent years on the Guthrie thrust. Still, judging from the thunderclaps of laughter elicited by Kaufman and Hart's time-worn gags, Guthrie audiences are getting exactly what they want--television for the stage. Why not a whole season of this?
At Park Square Theatre in St. Paul--or Guthrie Jr., as it is sometimes referred to--a similarly relaxing take on Agatha Christie'sTen Little Indians is being attempted, if with less impressive results. Sun-induced low brainwave activity is just what's needed to accept the grossly contrived setup of Ten Little Indians: Let's see... we need to get 10 people who don't know each other to travel to a remote, phoneless, boatless island for an entire weekend, so that a conniving lunatic can kill them off one by one for a motive so obvious it can't possibly be true--but is! To be fair, Park Square runs through Christie's predictable paces with at least a modicum of artistic ambition. Gabriel Backlund's retro-futuristic set design, with its curvilinear bannisters and inlaid furniture, gives the play a pleasantly nostalgic feeling of 1940s chic.
The acting, too, is evidently inspired by that same era in cinematic history. That is to say, most of the performances aren't half bad, except the ones that are. Park Square's production takes a while to get going, but Agatha Christie's familiar mix of idle chatter and playful misdirection eventually carries the play along, despite the mechanical adequacy of the staging itself.
You Can't Take It With You plays at the Guthrie Theater through Aug. 17; call 377-2224.Ten Little Indians plays at Park Square Theatre through Aug. 23; call 291-7005.