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3.5 out of 4 stars

God bless Eric Peterson's anarchic energy. The former Corner Gas star has been a real loose cannon, lately – existing simultaneously within his characters and outside of them. He clearly relishes being onstage and always seems like he's on the verge of pulling down the pants of whoever happens to be standing next to him.

It's not an approach for every play, but his Grandpa Sycamore makes Soulpepper Theatre Company's otherwise safe production of You Can't Take It With You into a ticking time bomb. He gives a performance that had me cackling with glee.

This old-fashioned 1936 comedy by the writing duo of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman set the formula for an endless succession of plays and movies about wacky, but ultimately loveable in-laws, from La Cage Aux Folles to Meet the Fockers to the recent Addams Family musical.

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Alice Sycamore (Krystin Pellerin) is proposed to by Tony Kirby (Gregory Prest), the son of a Wall Street tycoon. She's worried, however, that Kirby's rich, conservative parents won't match up with her zany family.

Grandpa, who gave up work 35 years earlier, preaches a follow-your-bliss philosophy that's been adopted by his offspring. Alice's mother Penny (Nancy Palk) has spent eight years writing mildly titillating plays, after a typewriter was delivered to the house by accident. Meanwhile, father Paul (Derek Boyes) spends his days building fireworks in the basement with his pal Mr. De Pinna (Michael Simpson), an ice man who came in out of the cold eight years ago and never left.

Alice's sister Essie (Patricia Fagan) makes candy when not practising ballet, while Essie's idiot-savant husband Ed (Mike Ross) plays the xylophone and prints seditious-sounding pamphlets for kicks.

Naturally, there is a dinner party at the Sycamore residence with Mr. and Mrs. Kirby – John Jarvis and Brenda Robins, dressed up like the Monopoly man and the Statue of Liberty. Equally naturally, everything goes wrong, leading Alice to exclaim: "Why can't we be like other people? Roast beef, and two green vegetables, and – doilies on the table!"

Director Joseph Ziegler takes Hart and Kaufman's play at face value and delivers a sentimental production that is superficially satisfying; he's an expert with this type of material, the Frank Capra of Ontario stages. (As it happens, Capra made the film version of this play.) It goes down smoothly, but the smugness of the bourgeois bohemians that populate You Can't Take It With You ultimately leaves you with indigestion.

The family lives in a lovely house around the corner from Columbia University in New York, toying around with hobbies, with no apparent need for income. Their eccentricities are never genuinely threatening to the social order, and they all exist in heterosexual pair bonds and say grace before eating their frankfurters.

There's even a happy African-American maid, Rheba (Sabryn Rock), whose welfare-drawing, dull-witted boyfriend Donald (Andre Sills, who gives an enjoyably offbeat interpretation of this thankless, mildly racist part) stops by to run errands gratis.

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Naturally, the Sycamores – and probably Moss and Kaufman – would say they treat the black servants just like family, a liberal posture that gets skewered in the recent satire Clybourne Park. Ziegler simply decides to buy into the family's self-proclaimed enlightenment on all issues, cutting a problematic line like Mrs. Sycamore's condescending observation that Rheba and Donald "are really cute together, something like Porgy and Bess."

Just what is the Sycamore philosophy anyway? Grandpa – the purportedly wise one in the show, who says the title of the play – doesn't pay his income tax, advises everyone to selfishly pursue their own happiness and is politically apathetic. "Used to worry about the world, too," he lectures Mr. Kirby.

When an IRS man stops by to demand Grandpa's back taxes, he inquires as to what the government plans to do with his money. The tax man says the government will protect him – from an invasion by foreigners, for example.

"Oh, I don't think they're goin' to do that," replies Grandpa. "I wouldn't mind paying if it were something sensible."

This is a line that rings well today, in light of a series of controversial American-led wars in the Middle East. But given that it was written in 1936, five years before the attack on Pearl Harbor would finally drag a reluctant United States into the Second World War, Hart and Kaufman's play seems an embarrassing artifact of an avert-your-eyes American isolationism.

Damned if it isn't joyful, however, thanks to Soulpepper's wonderful acting company working at a high level with delightful performances from pretty much everyone. As Alice, who says she fell in love with Tony when she saw the back of his head, Pellerin manages to not be annoying, which is, in its way, a triumph; she also models a pair of white sailor pants that suggest Tony might have also lost his heart while observing her from behind. Thanks there go to designer Christina Poddubiuk.

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And as Tony, Prest manages to put a little zip – almost Peterson-esque – into a part that could also be dreadfully bland; he has a particular way of asking Alice to take dictation that suggests there's more to this world than is being shown by Hart and Kaufman.

You Can't Take it With You

  • Written by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman
  • Directed by Joseph Ziegler
  • Starring Eric Peterson
  • At the Young Centre in Toronto
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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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