Theatre Baton Rouge makes most of ‘You Can’t Take It With You’

Some actors — and some plays, for that matter — age better than others. A pretty good example is playing now at Theatre Baton Rouge.

Whether as a singer, pianist, comedian, dramatic actor or musical director, Terry Byars has been a stalwart on the local theater scene for years, and he is the source of much of the mirth provided by “You Can’t Take It With You,” which opened last weekend. His timing, facial expression and the fine art of not overacting even in a farce could serve as an excellent seminar for younger thespians.

And he is not alone in terms of able execution of roles for the play, which marks the end of director Keith Dixon’s 10-year tenure as the theater’s managing artistic director. Their efforts are expended, however, on a play that has seen better days.

“You Can’t Take It With You,” set in the 1930s in New York City, has a fair amount of laughs, especially in the second act, after the plot devices are all set up in order for hilarity to ensue.

Except for the younger daughter, Alice (played effectively by Natalie Sibille), the Sycamore family is unconventional.

Alice’s grandfather, Martin Vanderhof (Byars) dropped the corporate life and has declined to pay income taxes for years; her mom, Penny (Nancy Litton), decided to write plays after a typewriter was mistakenly delivered to the home.

The father, Paul (Lee Allen) is a tinkerer who makes fireworks in the basement assisted by a friend, Mr. De Pinna (Kevin Brooks). Alice’s sister, Essie (Michele Taylor), is a candy-maker who fancies herself a ballerina, though she never improves under the tutelage of Russian dancing coach Boris Kolenkhov (Ben Skinner), who is often at the house. Essie’s husband, Ed, distributes her candies and is an amateur printer and xylophone player. Their maid, Rheba (Paris Jackson), has a boyfriend, Donald (Roger Ferrier), who performs odd jobs for the family.

The basis for the comedy is the disparity between this lifestyle and that of Alice’s boyfriend, Tony Kirby (Anthony Pierre Jr.), and his family. Tony’s father (Robert Gautreau) owns a firm on Wall Street, and his mother (Tara Sager) is accustomed to the lifestyle his success affords. Both parents are extremely uptight.

Here is the problem: Seven decades after George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart wrote this script, a lot of the Sycamores’ oddities no longer seem nearly so weird.

Vanderhof has snakes as pets? Uncommon, but hardly unheard of. The Sycamores don’t eat fine food or well-rounded meals? Hello, drive-through fast food.

There always seems to be a lot of nonrelatives in the house? In the 21st Century, families have been redefined to the point that all lifestyles are supposed to be celebrated. The references to the Soviet Union and communism? We remember something about that. Might need to Google it.

Still, the clash of cultures works on some levels, aided by Litton’s ability to appear clueless, Taylor’s inability to dance (or talent for bad dancing, if you prefer), and mostly by Byars’ excellent delivery of the best laugh lines. By the end of the second act, the play hits its stride.

Yet, once things seem to be rolling, the third act turns into a slog involving the needless introduction of yet another unusual but inconsequential character, and a preachy denunciation of Mr. Kirby’s workaholism and materialism. The play runs 2½ hours.