Can’t Take It With You is a chaotic,
whimsical play that centers on the madcap Vanderhof family in 1936. In the
Vanderhof house, there is always someone writing a play, dancing, playing the
xylophone, or setting off illegal firecrackers. Grandpa Vanderhof; the family
patriarch, believes in not working hard, but instead having fun and enjoying
life to the fullest; no questions asked. While enjoying the carefree, no
boundaries lifestyle; the Vanderhof home encounter some conservative guests, a
run in with the police, and a visit from the IRS.
In the opening scene of the play, the
family members are introduced in the order of appearance. First there’s
Grandpa’s daughter; Penny Sycamore is typing away at one of her many plays. She
is joined by her eldest daughter Essie Carmichael; who makes and sells candy,
but really wants to be a dancer. Everywhere Essie goes, she wears ballet slippers
and dances rather than walk. Then there’s the maid Rheba, listening to Penny go
on and on about how to get a character in her play out of a monastery. Next
Penny’s husband, Paul Sycamore comes from the basement along with Mr. De Pinna,
where they both were making firecrackers. Mr. De Pinna was not a family member,
but rather a houseguest that delivered ice eight years prior and never left.
Essie’s husband, Ed Carmichael comes in and starts playing the xylophone as
Essie dancing to it. When the song is over, Ed works on his printing press as
Rheba’s boyfriend Donald brings flies to feed the snakes.
By this time Grandpa, who gave up his
business thirty five years ago searching for happiness, returns from a
commencement ceremony at Columbia University, one of the many activities he
enjoys doing. Essie greets Grandpa and tells him about a letter that came for
him from the government, but somehow got misplaced. She said that several more
letters had come for him weeks before. Grandpa was curious as to what the
government wanted with him.
after, Penny’s youngest daughter Alice arrives from work. Alice is the only
family member that has a conventional job, a secretary on Wall Street. Alice
informs the family that Tony Kirby, the son of boss will be calling on her that
evening and asked them to behave and try to act normal because she really likes
this man. She then proceeds upstairs to get ready for his arrival.
The doorbell rings, however, it’s not
Alice’s gentleman caller, it’s an Internal Revenue Agent named Henderson.
Henderson informed Grandpa that he owed twenty two years of unpaid income tax.
Grandpa told Henderson that the government doesn’t do anything that he would
pay taxes to support. Suddenly a loud bang comes from the basement and a
startled Henderson leaves.
Finally, Tony arrives and barely gets a
glimpse of the family before Alice rushes him out the door and runs into Mr.
Kolenkhov, Essie’s loud Russian dance instructor. Mr. Kolenkhov and the rest of
the family sit down to dinner and Grandpa says grace and asks God to let them
keep living life as they like.
Later that evening, Tony and Alice return
home after their date. They talk about how much they love each other; however
Alice doesn’t think they can ever marry because of the cultural differences
between the two families. Tony disagrees and convinces Alice that the only
thing that matters is their love for one another. So they become engaged and
A week later, Penny invited an actress
named Gay Wellington over to rehearse one of her plays. Gay gets drunk and
passes out on the sofa. Tony Kirby and his parents will be joining them for
dinner the next night. As Alice starts getting things ready, the rest of the
family go about their normal business; Paul heads down to the cellar to make
more fireworks, Penny decides to work on her painting of Mr. De Pinna; and Mr.
Kolenkhov arrives to give Essie a dancing lesson, and Ed is preparing to
deliver Essie’s candy.
Ed begins to print labels for Essie’s
candy and decides to print “The State is God and God is State”, and put those
on the candy boxes. In the meantime, he asked Mr. De Pinna to look outside and
see if there was a man standing in front of the house, because for the last two
days there has been a man following him around. Mr. De Pinna said there wasn’t
anyone there, and that he saw the man walk away.
In the meantime, Penny prepares to start
painting. Mr. De Pinna comes up from the cellar with an old picture Penny had
started some eight years ago. Mr. De Pinna mentions that he cannot believe that
he’s been living in the home for eight years. Then Grandpa reminded him that the
milkman preceded him and had lived there until he died; five years. The family
never knew his name, so when he died, they named him Martin Vanderhof-
At this moment, the Kirby’s arrive. Tony
has brought them on the wrong night by mistake. The Kirby’s are surprised by all
the chaos, just as the Sycamores are shocked to see the unexpected guests.
Penny makes the best out of the situation and instructs Rheba about dinner and
then sends Donald to the market. Everyone is trying to have a conversation when
drunken Gay briefly wakes up, Mr. Kolenkhov wrestles Mr. Kirby to the floor,
and Penny starts a word game that causes friction between Mr. & Mrs. Kirby.
Embarrassed, the Kirby’s decide that
they can’t stay for dinner and just as they started toward the door, three
F.B.I. agents showed up and blocked the door. They were there to arrest Ed for
the circulars he has been printing. They searched the whole house and found gun
powder and Paul’s fireworks in the cellar. Everyone in the house is arrested,
including the Kirby’s. During all of the excitement, Mr. De Pinna had left his
lit pipe unattended with the fireworks and they explode.
The next day, Rheba and Donald are sitting at
the dinner table reading the newspaper about their arrest. All thirteen of them
are given suspended sentences for manufacturing fireworks without a permit.
Distraught, Alice breaks off her
engagement with Tony because of what happened and is packed and ready to leave
town. She is waiting for her cab, but no one wanted to call one. Tony arrives
and tried to talk her out of leaving without any success. Now Mr. Kolenkhov
shows up with his friend, former Grand Duchess Olga; a waitress. Olga joins in
the kitchen to make blintzes for the family. Then, Mr. Kirby is at the door
looking for Tony. While Alice is still trying to leave, Grandpa gets everyone
to stay and have a conversation.
During the conversation, everything
seems to get resolved. Then Tony admits that he purposely brought his parents
to dinner on the wrong night so they could see Alice’s family as they really
were. Upset, Tony quits his father’s company so he can pursue something he
really enjoys. Grandpa helps Mr. Kirby understand the importance of letting his
son follow his dreams, and that there’s more to life than money. After all,
“you can’t take it with you” when you die.
Finally, Grandpa receives a letter from
the I.R.S. stating that his tax issues are resolved; the Kirby’s stay for
dinner and enjoy Olga’s blintzes.
In conclusion, You Can’t Take It With You is a delightful comedy. The Vanderhof
household by today’s standards would be considered dysfunctional, eccentric and
insane. The combination of all three makes for an enjoyable read that will have
you laughing senselessly.
characters were so different and so extreme, that it is hard to believe they
were members of the same family. I feel this play addresses individualism, and
the appeal of being a rebel for one’s own cause regardless of what others
think. The moral of this play is to enjoy your life to the fullest, and
that money isn’t everything. Just be happy.