You Can’t Take It with You opens with Penny Vanderhof Sycamore typing at a play in the living room of a house near Columbia University. She is working on her eleventh play in the eight years since a typewriter arrived at the house, quite by accident; in this household, the delivery of a typewriter is enough to begin a literary career. Essie Carmichael enters from making candy in the kitchen, and the nonstop action begins. While Essie practices dancing, Penny tries to extricate her heroine from the monastery in which she has spent the last six years. At times, she wonders aloud whether to return to sculpture. Mr. Sycamore and Mr. De Pinna arrive from making fireworks in the basement; they plan a grand display including balloons. Ed Carmichael begins playing the xylophone. When Donald arrives to visit Rheba, he brings flies for Grandpa’s snakes. Ed plans to print some sayings from Trotsky to package with Essie’s next batch of candy.
Grandpa Vanderhof, still spry at age seventy-five, has just attended a graduation at Columbia University. When Alice arrives home, she seems very different from the other inhabitants. While Alice talks about her boyfriend and boss, a government man makes inquiries about Grandpa’s back taxes. Grandpa has not been paying taxes; indeed, he has been doing whatever pleases him since he walked away from his job thirty-five years ago. Grandpa buried an unnamed milkman as a Vanderhof when he died eight years before the time of the play. Now when mail comes for Grandpa, no one thinks to give it to him. Having seen none of the government’s letters, he does not know that the government wants back taxes. Tony visits Alice to meet the family. Kolenkhov begins a dance lesson with Essie. At any slight lull in the action, a new set of fireworks booms out of the basement. The absurdities continue in the second scene. Alice explains to Tony that her family is not normal; various members of the household readily demonstrate that fact. Nevertheless, Tony plans to marry Alice.
In act 2, Grandpa brings a drunken actor home to help Penny with her play. Alice announces that she has invited the Kirbys to dinner. As the family makes grand plans for the dinner, the Kirbys arrive a night early. Grandpa explains something of his philosophy to Mr. Kirby. He does what pleases him rather than conforming to what the world requires for success. He points out that he does not need bicarbonate and that he enjoys freedom from taxes and business worries.
Kolenkhov shows that he is also a wrestler by throwing Mr. Kirby to the floor. Before a second dinner is ready, Mrs. Kirby starts their exit by pleading a headache. While Penny tries to invite the Kirbys to return the next night, Alice tells Tony that that would not work. Before the Kirbys can leave, FBI men stop everything and arrest everyone, including the Kirbys. They are investigating the printed sayings that Ed has put in Essie’s candy packages. Grandpa explains that Ed just likes to print words that sound nice. The agents also discover the gunpowder from the illegal fireworks operation in the basement, and they lead Mr. De Pinna from the cellar. Before they leave for the jail, Mr. De Pinna’s pipe (left in the basement during the commotion) sets off the whole year’s supply of fireworks. The second act ends in mayhem.
Like the first two acts, the third contains frantic activity and fast-paced dialogue. Donald reads the news account of the night in jail. Rheba explains Mrs. Kirby’s reaction to a...
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stripteaser who sang a stripping song while Mrs. Kirby was being searched. Rheba regrets that no party will use the party food. Every piece of the fireworks has exploded. Alice will not return to work and is ready to leave everything behind. Kolenkhov brings the Grand Duchess Olga Katrina, now a waitress in New York, to visit, and she fixes her special blintzes for dinner. Tony tries to keep Alice from leaving. Mr. Kirby comes to find Tony. Before he can rescue Tony, he finds himself discussing life and happiness with Grandpa Vanderhof; Grandpa points out that Mr. Kirby worries himself to make more money although he has all he can use. He concludes, “you can’t take it with you.” His philosophy is simple: Enjoy life by doing what one wants and avoiding doing things merely to please others or to make money. Tony reminds his father of his youth when he tried to run away from business, but Mr. Kirby retorts that he is thankful that his father knocked those ideas out of him. Tony points out that he still has a saxophone in the back of his closet. He adds that he intended to bring his parents on the wrong night; he wanted them to see a real family.
Grandpa suggests that most people would not be willing to settle for what they eventually get; Mr. Kirby agrees to eat the duchess’s blintzes; the United States government even apologizes for trying to collect taxes from a man who has officially been dead for eight years. Grandpa offers a simple grace:Well, Sir, here we are again. . . . Things seem to be going along fine. Alice is going to marry Tony. . . . Of course the fireworks blew up, but that was Mr. De Pinna’s fault not Yours. We’ve all got our health and as far as anything else is concerned we’ll leave that to You. Thank you.
Everyone begins talking in different directions once again.