Easy Does It

Think of the Sycamore family as the Munsters. The clan at the center of the effervescent production of You Can't Take It With You now onstage at the WaterTower Theatre is a kooky bunch of lovable misfits occupying a spooky old two-story in Morningside Heights. With its stuffed animal heads and live snakes, it's not that different from the Munsters' cobwebby manse on Mockingbird Lane.

As in the madcap TV sitcom, the grandpa character in Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's 1936 comedy does little but loiter around the house, spouting odd bits of advice. The dad cooks up things in the basement that occasionally go BOOM. Mom flutters around in a comic dither, oblivious to everyone else. And in both families, one kid is as weird as the rest of the group while the oldest daughter stands alone as a pretty fish out of water.

Among the Munsters, the oddball was Marilyn, the "normal" cousin with the bouffant hair. For the Sycamores, daughter Alice (played by Colleen Smith Clinkenbeard) is the well-coiffed, straitlaced one, embarrassed as all get-out by her wacky kin.

At some time or other, everybody wishes his or her relatives would stop acting so...weird, especially in the presence of outsiders. That universal embarrassment over the behavior of one's family members is what made The Munsters one of the '60s' favorite kiddie sitcoms, and it's the theme that keeps a vintage play such as You Can't Take It With You fresh, funny and relevant. The "normal" kid, of course, will have to learn acceptance, which is exactly what happens in the play.

The cast at WaterTower, under the direction of Terry Martin, does its work with giddy energy that stays just this side of chaotic. They don't force the laughs, so they get lots. It's a relaxed affair all around, comfy and warm as an old pair of fuzzy slippers. Particularly good performances come from Cindy Beall as the mom, Tippi Hunter as the cook named Rheba, Regan Adair as the Trotsky-loving, Kramer-haired son-in-law and Ted Wold as Mr. De Pinna, who arrived at the house as the ice man and decided to stick around for eight years.

The plot pairs up Alice with her boss' son, well-off Tony Kirby (Jack E. Birdwell). As the only member of her family with a job, Alice has her sights set on a better life, and in 1936, marrying up is about the only way to get there.

To introduce Tony and his stuffy parents (played by Bill Jenkins and the hilarious Cindee Mayfield) to the residents of Casa Sycamore, Alice arranges a proper dinner party. Mayhem ensues when Tony delivers the folks on the wrong night, finding the Sycamores in full-throttle crazies. The Kirbys, trussed up in evening wear, are horrified, particularly when Mama Sycamore engages them in a sexually themed word game. The engagement between Alice and Tony is kaput.

But this being comedy, all's hugs and smiles by the end. Grandpa Martin (played with lovely, Lionel Barrymore-ish drawl by Steve M. Powell) brings both families together in a speech that sums up the real message of the play: that relaxing and having some fun is worth more in the long run than a fat bank account. That's what people needed to hear during the Depression, when the Broadway production and subsequent Frank Capra film version were hits, and frankly, it's what more of us need to accept now that our 401(k)s have sunk to the value of Confederate paper money.

Barbette, a play about a transvestite trapeze artist, won four awards, the most of any production, from the Dallas-Fort Worth Theater Critics Forum in the annual round of honors recognizing the best professional theater work in North Texas over the past season. Barbette, by Bill Lengfelder and David Goodwin, was noted for the exceptional quality of its acting, directing and writing.

Kitchen Dog Theater, which produced Barbette, earned a total of eight citations, more than any other area company. Theatre Three, which celebrated its 40th season last year, won four awards for three separate productions. Addison's WaterTower Theatre, Fort Worth's Stage West and Dallas' new works-oriented Ground Zero Theater Company each earned three awards. Awards can go to several winners in each category.

The winners:

Outstanding New Plays or Musicals: Barbette by Bill Lengfelder and David Goodwin, Kitchen Dog Theater; Deadly Weapons by Laurie Brooks, Dallas Children's Theater; Bad Roof by Tim Hatcher, Ground Zero Theater Company.

Outstanding Touring Productions: The Worst of Eric Bogosian, McKinney Avenue Contemporary; My Fair Lady, Dallas Summer Musicals.

Outstanding Performances/Actress: Amanda Denton, Bash, WaterTower Theatre; Cindee Mayfield, The Abandoned Reservoir, Ground Zero; Bernardine Mitchell, Blues in the Night, Dallas Theater Center; Elizabeth Rothan, The Great Sebastians, Theatre Three; Lorca Simons, Savage/Love, Hip Pocket Theatre; Shelley Tharp-Payton, Through the Leaves, Kitchen Dog; Jere Stevens Tulk, Barbette, Kitchen Dog.

Outstanding Performances/Actor: J. Brent Alford, The Great Sebastians, Theatre Three; Coy Covington, The Man Who Came to Dinner, Theatre Arlington; Bruce DuBose, Glamour, Undermain Theatre; Doug Jackson, A Class Act, Theatre Three; Joey Steakley, Barbette, Kitchen Dog; Nick Sandys, Thank You, Jeeves, Stage West; Ted Wold, Sordid Lives, Uptown Players.

Outstanding Performances by Ensemble Casts: The Glass Menagerie, Sage & Silo Theatre; Putting It Together, Stage West; Some Explicit Polaroids, Kitchen Dog.

Outstanding Directors: Jac Alder, Side Show, Theatre Three; Dan Day, Through the Leaves, Kitchen Dog; Bill Lengfelder, Barbette, Kitchen Dog; Terry Martin, Sweeney Todd, WaterTower Theatre; Katherine Owens, Cat's-Paw, Undermain Theatre.

Outstanding Achievements in Design: Matthew Anderson, set design, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, WaterTower; John Coyne, set design, The Front Page, Dallas Theater Center; Zak Herring, set designs for the entire season, Dallas Children's Theater; Leonard McCormick, musical direction, Putting It Together, Stage West; Joe Rogers, music composition, Alice Wonder, Jubilee Theatre; Lake Simons, puppetry, Molemo!, Hip Pocket Theatre; Michael Sullivan, set design, Some Explicit Polaroids, Kitchen Dog.

Special awards: Mark Fleischer, departing artistic director at Plano Repertory Theatre, for expanding the company from community to professional-level work and creating an affordable, high-quality children's theater program; and to Ground Zero Theater Company for staying true to its mission of encouraging and producing the works of Texas playwrights.

The Critics Forum consists of theater reviewers from the Dallas Observer, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Dallas Voice and Dallas Weekly.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner