There are probably safer plays in the American theater canon than George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s Pulitzer Prize-winning chestnut about a family of eccentrics who do their thing while the rest of the world toils in quiet desperation—but I can’t think of any. First produced in 1936, in the middle of the Great Depression, the play is almost entirely shadow free: no money worries, no personal problems. Even the White Russian refugees fleeing Stalinist terror are happy. The only flies in the ointment are sweet Alice Sycamore’s rich boyfriend’s muggle parents and those annoying government guys (the IRS in the first act, the FBI in the second). Still, the play holds up well, thanks in part to Kaufman and Hart’s witty dialogue, their cliche-free characters, and a plot that, by the standards of the time, isn’t too creaky or drawn out.
In Oak Park Festival Theatre’s current production, director Jason Gerace focuses on character development, not punchlines. This is good thing since most of Kaufman and Hart’s topical humor needs extensive annotation. Gerace and his cast of able comic actors even discover some new tricks for this 82-year-old warhorse. Most impressive are the moments of sweet Chekhovian melancholy they manage to find from time to time in the material. Jack Hickey in particular brings a touching wistful air to his performance as the family’s eccentric, carefree patriarch. These moments deepen the play and raise the stakes, though not for long, since they are quickly overwhelmed by the play’s very pre-WWII American need for a happy ending. v