PBS's 'You Can't Take It With You': a timeless comedy of manners

In 1937, playwrights George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart won a Pulitzer Prize for their zany farce ''You Can't Take It With You.'' Henry Travers and Josephine Hull starred.

In 1938 it was done as a movie starring Lionel Barrymore and Spring Byington, with Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Ann Miller, and Mischa Auer thrown in for good measure.

It has been constantly done by regional resident acting companies and has been revived On and Off Broadway several times.

In 1979, it was done on CBS with Art Carney and Jean Stapleton.

Last year, the play was once again revived on Broadway, starring Jason Robards, Elizabeth Wilson, George Rose and Colleen Dewhurst - to ecstatic reviews. It was videotaped on the stage of the Royale Theatre in New York, and now it comes to television's ''Great Performances'': You Can't Take It With You (PBS, Friday, Nov. 16, 9-11 p.m.).

''YCTIWY'' may be an old play - but it has very young ideas. In a series of hilarious turns, the play focuses on a cast of Characters with a capital C. They are proud of themselves in all their offbeat wackiness, unselfconscious idiosyncrasies, fey behavior. There are mainly older people with young ideas and younger people with old ideas. If there is a single theme, it is ''Be Thyself.'' Or perhaps: ''Eccentricities are in the eye of the beholder.''

Directed for the stage with verve and constantly erupting hilarity by Ellis Raab, the producers were wise enough to summon TV director Kirk Browning to restage it for television. He has managed to retain the theatrical ensemble feel , despite the fact that the small screen makes it impossible to permit all the widely varied activities to appear on camera simultaneously. That isolation of individual performaces was the major problem with the previous TV production directed by Paul Bogart, which one critic described as ''ten schticks in search of a farce'' (yes, it was I).

The madcap story line doesn't need retelling, because it doesn't really matter - after all, this is a play about the amazing variety in the human spectrum. Outstanding among the performers are George Rose as the balletmaster Kolenkhov, Colleen Dewhurst as Grand Duchess Olga, Rosetta Lenoire as Rheba, and , of course, Jason Robards as Grandpa Vanderhof. Only Carol Andronsky, as the constantly twirling Essie, seems a bit miscast - she seems almost as old as her mother, the youthful-looking Elizabeth Wilson.

Although there is a constant flow of hilarity, some of it contemporary and some amusing because of its dated quality, ''You Can't Take It With You'' is basically a timeless comedy of manners. The only kind of manners that count: acceptance of other human beings as they are.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.