‘You Can’t Take it With You’ at Laurel Mill Playhouse

FOUR STARS
What’s new in the world of plays, snakes, ballet, and fireworks? You’ll have to head over to the Laurel Mill Playhouse and see their production of You Can’t Take it With You to find out! Directed by Patrick Pase, this classic Kauffman and Hart Pulitzer Prize-winning play is a brilliant comedy about a perfectly quirky, anything-but-normal family and what happens when their lone ‘normal’ daughter brings home a gentleman caller. Delightfully uplifting, You Can’t Take it With You inspires an important life lesson while tickling your funny bone in the process.

Chris Prestel and Emily Mullin. Photo courtesy of Laurel Mill Playhouse.

Chris Prestel and Emily Mullin. Photo courtesy of Laurel Mill Playhouse.

The play is set in 1942 but the costumes have a bit of an unsettled and eclectic feel to them. Costume Designer Maureen Rogers (with contributions made from the cast) brings the throwback style of the late 1920’s right up through the early 50’s to the mix. There are lovely dresses reserved for Alice even if they are a bit quirkier than what ought to be used for the ‘normal’ daughter.

Show Director, Patrick Pase, doubles as the show’s Set Designer. Leaving the walls a simple beige opens up the space creating a ‘larger than it is’ effect to allow more room for the shenanigans of the Sycamore family. Simplicity in the furnishings keeps the actors from tripping over set pieces as they mill about the stage during all of the comings and goings in this show. The functionality of the swinging kitchen door adds an element of farce to the show which keeps the humor percolating in full strength beneath the text.

Pase keeps the overall pace of the show moving but there are points where the dialogue lapses in upon itself. Tightening these moments, though few and far between, would throttle the show into high gear to a hilarious, albeit profound, conclusion. Pase finds ways to keep the humor honest rather than pushing for the farcical elements found hidden in the text. Delicately balancing the absurd without pushing it to a place of melodramatic hysteria, Pase provides a natural feel to the performance in his direction.

The show, despite having character that speak more often or appear more often than others, functions as an ensemble piece. All of the interactions derived upon the stage come from clearly constructed characters with concise visions supporting these character choices; the ultimate tool to effectively delivering this witty comedy.

Creating striking character profiles for moments of brief cameo is a hallmark of this particular play, and excelling in that skill are Mark T. Allen as Henderson the IRS agent and Gene Valendo as Mr. Kirby. While both men appear separately in the production they do a tremendous job of making their characters stand out for their brief appearances. Allen produces an intimidating southern charm as the rigid IRS investigator, his easily ruffled nature swelling into a comic release of frustration. Valendo takes a similar approach to his austere character, huffing and puffing in a manner most absurdly profound until his emotional walls are toppled by the wizened logic of grandpa.

Adding quirky flavor in pairs to this production are Essie (Gerie Voss) and Ed (Chris Penick). The pair seldom appear without one another on the stage and their simplistic loving nature toward one another is both endearing and curious. It’s Voss’ indefatigable physicality that is impressive, constantly moving in attempted dance, she keeps all eyes on her as she butchers the ballet moves that her character has been failing at miserably for years. Penick has a nervous disposition about his character, which brings a layer of comedy to not only the relationship he shares with Voss’ character but to his overall presence in the production. They are committed to the little nuances, like dithering about on the xylophone or constantly keeping dance moves going, and these choices make their characters stand out in this performance.

No quirky family would be complete without peculiar matriarch and patriarchal figures at the head and the Sycamores are no exception. Penny (Becky Batt) and Paul (Eric Small) share a rich vibrant quality in the characters and have unique ways of portraying them. Batt fully embraces the batty nature of her character, the dippy and flighty characteristics making her both doting and adorable as she tries to find her niche in life.

Small is over the moon with enthusiasm when it comes to his character’s fireworks. He is filled with bombastic explosions of vivacious energy particularly when the fireworks get going in the basement with Mr. DePinna (Reginald Garcon).

Batt’s fussy gussy attitude over welcoming her daughter Alice’s (Emily Mullin) gentleman Tony (Chris Prestel) into the family is quite amusing. Mullin embodies the notion of ‘normal’ to perfection without any initial hints of her own quirks or peculiarities. As the play progresses her sweet chemistry with Prestel turns bitter as the nervousness, well expressed through the way she physically carries the character, overrides their love. Prestel has a congenial nature about his portrayal of the youth in love; and feels natural on the stage. The pair create an interesting dynamic juxtaposed against the oddballs of the Sycamore family.

Tim Evans and Kate-Eric Small. Photo courtesy of Laurel Mill Playhouse.

Tim Evans and Kate-Eric Small. Photo courtesy of Laurel Mill Playhouse.

But it’s Grandpa (Tim Evans) who acts as the gel of the production, moving everyone forward and balancing out all the oddities that roll their way through the performance. With a firm handle on how to deliver text with a hint of comedy and a sprinkling of sage wisdom, Evans gives a thoroughly focused performance. His humors are tempered with little bursts of seriousness that makes his character both compelling and deep. Evans presents a charisma that is balanced natural existence, truly augmenting the carefree and life-enjoying nature of his character.

A production with great potential and some wonderful talent sprinkled throughout the cast, You Can’t Take It With You is well worth a look!

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours with one intermission.

You Can’t Take It With You plays through April 13, 2014 at Laurel Mill Playhouse— 508 Main Street, in Laurel, MD. For reservations call the box office at (301) 617-9906.

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