George S. Kaufman’s post-Depression comedy, You Can’t Take It with You, is in many ways the perfect three act play.
The first act is a simple and direct introduction to the characters and the major conflict/event. There’s a Romeo & Juliet tale playing out between a young woman from a bizarre, poor family and a young man from an extremely wealthy family. While the two groups don’t necessarily hate each other in Montague-Capulet rivalry, there certainly seems to be enough of a difference between them to make Alice & Tony’s future doubtful.
Act two is the longest of the three and it is in this one where most of the drama in this comedy plays out. We get to know each of the diverse characters a little better and gain more insight into why Alice and Tony’s relationship was probably doomed from the start.
Finally, act three is a sprightly and rather delightful dénouement, much shorter than its preceding act and much more satisfying. It’s well suited to a traditional comedy of romance.
While the structure of the play is textbook, the play itself is a bit out of time. It doesn’t quite work for contemporary audiences. The primary issue or conflict is Alice’s supposedly strange family, but to be honest, it’s hard to find them anything other than a tiny bit quirky by today’s standards. That’s the rub, of course. There’s no choice but to read this by today’s standards; if we transport ourselves in time and read these characters the way a 1930s audience would, then the shock and hilarity is much more pointed. In that way, the play could be easily adapted to the modern stage by reimagining Sycamores and casting them in such a way that would make them outlandish by contemporary perception. In other words, not much needs to be changed to make this one work, and that’s probably because it’s a tale as old as time.
Other notes of interest are the minor conflicts of identity faced by Tony’s father, the hedge fund manager, and the commentary on marital relations, government mismanagement, themes of independence, and philosophical musings on the meaning of life and happiness. The long waited for title phrase, spoken by the Sycamore patriarch, comes right at the end of the play, where it packs the most punch. While I didn’t find much to immerse myself in for most of the play, I ultimately appreciated where it goes in the end, even if we see it coming.
Now, I’ve only recently learned that Frank Capra adapted this play to film, starring James Stewart, and I have to say, that definitely gets my attention! (Oscars for best picture and best director? Sign me up!)