There are risks when high school players try to stage sophisticated plays such as “You Can’t Take It with You,” a three-act comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart that premiered in 1936. Under the skilled hand of Jami Blum, in her first year as director of the PHS Drama Department, the young actors make the original wit sparkle and the satire bite.
The play will be performed twice this weekend, on Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m., at the Perry Performing Arts Center. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for students and free for people aged 65 and older.
Kaufman and Hart’s comedy, which won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was later adapted for the screen, was published during the turbulent 1930s, when economic, political and social arrangements were in flux. The Great Depression had impoverished many Americans and greatly engrossed the wealth of some others. Revolution was in the air in Europe, and Hitler was on the march. A fad for Freud had people poking at their sexual inhibitions and wondering whether they knew their own minds.
“You Can’t Take It with You” emerged from this unstable matrix and was a big hit on Broadway. The plot turns on the love affair between Alice Sycamore, product of an affluent but notably eccentric New York family, and Tony Kirby, son of a Wall Street trader and a mother given to spiritualism.
Early in the first act, Penelope Sycamore, played by Rebecca Dobson, is searching through a pile of her scripts. “Religious play, labor play, sex play — I know it’s here somewhere,” she says. Her line serves as a piece of meta-commentary on the play itself because all three themes are found variously mixed into the three acts.
The text is filled with winks and nods in the psychosexual direction, which dates it a little, but pure-minded supporters of Ted Cruz, for instance, need have no fear of pollution. The Puritans closed the playhouses in England for a good reason, after all, but the moral here is wholesome and edifying, encouraging us to be true to ourselves and not slaves to conformity.
The performance at Thursday night’s dress rehearsal had its bumps — why rehearse else? — but Friday’s show was for the most part excellent, and the audience enjoyed some first-rate acting. Many of the students have performed together for several years now and seem comfortable as an ensemble.
It is a funny play performed by some winning young PHS players. The character of Madame Kolenkhov, for instance, a ruined Russian aristocrat obsessed with the crimes of the Stalinist regime, is delightfully rendered by Amani Al-Rashid. Heaven VanDorn has the smaller but equally hilarious role of the Grand Duchess Olga Katrina, reduced to the snobbery of department store clerks and the narcissism of small differences.
Ana Rosa Funez plays Gay Wellington, an alcoholic actress friend of the family who seems to have wandered straight out of a Chekhov tragedy and into the absurd world of this comedy. She rouses herself from her drunken stupor just long enough to interrupt Mr. Kirby’s analysis of the present state of the economy with a snatch of verse about a young woman from Wheeling who had a remarkable feeling. It’s the Roaring Twenties’ commentary on the Boring Thirties.
The benevolent patriarch, Martin Vanderhof, played by Dax Kresse, sheds his sage wisdom on all who come within his circle, but the income on which he lives and supports his family of idle eccentrics is based on fraud and income tax evasion. His crimes might not be at the scale of the Panama Papers, but his hymn to relaxation must be seen in its true light.
The technical aspects of the PHS production were well handled. From the sets to the costumes and makeup, the light and sound, all were high caliber and promise more good drama in the future.