An adaptation of the Henri-Pierre Roche novel by Susan Haedicke

and Didier Rousselet

Directed by Didier Rousselet

Produced by Le Neon

At Rosslyn Spectrum to May 10

You could, I suppose, enjoy Arena Stage’s You Can’t Take It With You just for the laughs—the explosive snorts that greet the line “I wanna be a dancer” when it’s uttered in mid-leap by a character headed straight for a wall, the giggles that escalate into guffaws as the words “pickled pigs’ feet” work their magic on a character with chronic indigestion. These have, in productions past, been reward enough.

They’ve convulsed audiences since George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart devised them in 1936 for what’s come to seem the ur-text of family situation comedy, just as they’re convulsing audiences nightly at the Kreeger Theater. Douglas C. Wager, having staged dozens of ’30s comedies (including two that brought the Marx Bros. back to life) for regional stages all over the country, may just be the most proficient director of this genre currently employed in the American theater. And here, in a play that’s essentially about how family members get on one another’s nerves, he’s working at the top of his craft, building Act 1 to a frenzy, topping that frenzy in Act 2 with a fireworks display, and still finding ways to escalate the fun in Act 3. There’s no reason not to go along for what’s undeniably a pleasant ride. None at all. You’ll go home grinning, happy, perfectly satisfied.

Still, you’ll be missing much of this particular production’s resonance if you don’t look a little deeper. This You Can’t Take It With You is a romp, but it’s also more than that. It has been consciously staged as a valedictory by Wager, who’s stepping down in a couple of months as Arena’s artistic director, and who has packed it with references not just to the Sycamore and Kirby families who populate the play, but also to the Arena family that’s grown and prospered over 48 seasons. While only the last seven of those seasons have found Wager at the company’s helm, he’s been with the theater for fully half its history, since his arrival as an intern in 1974. He first staged You Can’t Take It With You five years later. Today, when he revisits the play, he brings with him a generation’s worth of memories.

So do some of his cast members. Robert Prosky, who joined Arena’s acting company in 1958 and was a fixture with the troupe through 23 seasons before his film and television career took off, is playing the same part he did in 1979—Grandpa Vanderhof, patriarch of the Sycamore clan and solid center around which the evening’s events swirl. As the cast’s elder statesman, he’s a relaxed, comforting presence, offering sage counsel to the young crazies who are exploding Roman candles in the basement and printing socialist manifestos in the parlor.

Halo Wines, who plays his enthusiastically but untalentedly “artistic” daughter Penelope, boasts a full quarter century’s association with the company, and is so familiar a presence on the Kreeger’s stage that some members of the opening-night audience began chuckling at the mere sight of her sitting at a typewriter, before she’d done anything that could properly be called amusing. Playing her goofily self-absorbed husband is comparative newcomer Ralph Cosham, who has a mere 11 seasons as a company member under his belt.

Wager uses these familiar faces to anchor a production that in many ways epitomizes what Arena and regional theater as a whole have been about since their inception. Once a fairly typical Broadway confection, You Can’t Take It With You now qualifies as a classic piece of Americana, which is to say, it’s neither hip enough to attract the MTV crowd when produced conventionally, nor old or radical enough to be reconceived by some avant-garde tyro. It’s just solid, well-written, consistently funny, and filled with the sort of attention-getting roles actors kill for.

Yet with 19 cast members, it’s an enormous undertaking: the sort of non-musical extravaganza that Broadway was already having trouble mounting when Arena was founded in 1950, and that commercial producers can no longer consider in an age when a cast of five has become prohibitively expensive. Actually, with recent reductions in federal and corporate support for the arts, YCTIWY has become a bit of a stretch for regional theaters, too, which is why Thomas Lynch’s gorgeously solid, three-story setting features a massive central staircase imported from the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Whereas Arena was once insistent on going it alone, Wager has championed the notion of co-productions with other regional theaters during his tenure. Here, you can see the benefits in an opulent design scheme that would normally have been precluded for a show with such high personnel costs.

The production is warmed by the amber lighting of Arena’s resident associate Allen Lee Hughes and lusciously costumed by Broadway veteran Patricia (Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret) Zipprodt, which speaks to the breadth of talent Arena calls on these days. Whether Wager intended to highlight that breadth in choosing his designers or simply happened into a happy confluence of influences doesn’t really matter. The point is that the production design reflects both Arena’s internal strength and its reach.

That’s also true of the show’s casting. Arena’s resident company may no longer exist, but it’s well represented here by the likes of Prosky, Wines, and Cosham, as well as by Tana Hicken and Henry Strozier, who bristle winningly as the skittish, upper-crusty couple who get unnerved when their son wants to marry into the Sycamore clan. That Hicken and Strozier were uproarious as the warring couple in Strindberg’s infinitely more serious Dance of Death two seasons ago makes their comic sparring here all the richer.

Playing the young lovers are a pair of winning performers who are making their Arena debuts (James Caan lookalike Lee Mark Nelson and sweetly sincere Michelle O’Neill). But this cast also showcases Arena’s more recent outreach into Washington’s expanding community of performers. Not long ago, when Arena reached outside its resident company, it hired actors almost exclusively from New York, but on Wager’s watch it has increasingly featured such home-grown talent as Washington Shakespeare Company founder T.J. Edwards and Round House regular Marty Lodge (cast here as flustered Internal Revenue agents), the divinely comic Studio Theater veteran Sarah Marshall (on tiptoes as the would-be dancer who thuds into walls), and such other small-theater leading lights as Frederick Strother, Hugh Nees, and Brigid Cleary, all of whom make brightly comic impressions in comparatively minor roles here.

All of this—the casting, the design, the genre, the special affection Wager brings to plays about family—contribute to making the evening resonate in a more than comic way. No doubt this will be more true for Arena subscribers than for first-timers, but it’ll be noticeable for anyone who’s seen even a couple of shows there. The warmth is palpable, the camaraderie infectious. Which is not to suggest that the evening is flawless. As with most ’30s comedies, YCTIWY has some sentimental dead spots, as well as a central romance so conventional that it’s hard for any production to work up much narrative suspense about its outcome. Also, when this staging goes for really big effects—that fireworks display that caps the second act, for instance—its physicality gets a trifle labored.

Still, when it’s clicking, this You Can’t Take It With You bops along with the assurance and brio of a live-action cartoon—a fact enhanced by Lynch’s decision to surround his setting with a painted scrim that looks for all the world like the frame that irises in on Porky, Bugs, Daffy, et al. when their Loony Toon hi-jinks lurch to a halt. By the end of what Wager’s program note calls his “farewell gift” to audiences, you half expect a giant “Th-th-th-that’s All, Folks!” to fill the stage.

That it doesn’t is probably due to the fact that, valedictory or no, Wager isn’t really saying goodbye. Following in the footsteps of company founder Zelda Fichandler, he’ll be coming back on occasion, in a freelance capacity. Next year, in Molly Smith’s first season as artistic director, he’ll be staging both a world premiere and a Marx Bros. revival, and in the process, providing the sort of continuity that has made Arena’s institutional family seem every bit as enduring as the convivial clan in You Can’t Take It With You.

The good news is that Le Neon’s Jules and Jim is not an adaptation of Francois Truffaut’s exquisite film. Gilding that particular lily would be doomed to failure both by audience memories and by the fact that Truffaut’s approach was so emphatically cinematic.

The bad news, alas, is that adaptors Susan Haedicke and Didier Rousselet have gone back to the Henri-Pierre Roche novel that Truffaut had the good sense to considerably abridge. Restoring the half-dozen romances the title characters shared before they met Kathe, the woman with the “archaic smile” they find so irresistible, serves not to enlarge, but only to attenuate their story. By intermission, it feels endless.

Partly that’s because the performances lack passion (and in some cases, competence), but mostly it’s because there are remarkably few scenes in which the characters actually converse. Instead, Jules reads passages from his novel, Jim reads letters from his Parisian mistress, and Kathe, who is by far the most direct of the three, says things like, “tell me a story about yourself, Jim.”

To fill out the evening, Rousselet has singer Robin Phillips croon cafe songs from the sidelines (on opening night, her sense of pitch was imprecise), and choreographs mostly pointless movement that only occasionally evolves into pointless dance. One conceit—a liquid-like crowd that tugs Jules and Jim in opposite directions when they’re separated in World War I—is modestly effective. Nothing else in the evening works at all.