BWW Interview: Richard Thomas Ignites in Broadway's YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU
Richard Thomas, currently playing fireworks maven Paul Sycamore in the 1936 screwball comedy YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU, couldn't ask for a more congenial ensemble to work with. "It's a wonderful company and strangely enough, it's a role I was offered a couple of times in the past," Thomas said before a recent performance.
"I figured now was a good time," he said of joining the 1937 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. One compelling reason was the opportunity to share, once again, a Broadway stage with James Earl Jones. Thomas' Broadway debut at age 7 was as FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt's son John A. Roosevelt in the 1958 drama SUNRISE at CAMPOBELLO. (Jones played Edward the butler. Ralph Bellamy starred as FDR.)
"One of my favorite memories is when we made our first entrance together," Thomas recalled. "And before each time as we were waiting to go on, he played with me and joked around. His generosity was astounding then and it still is."
Thomas, who has performed in scores of plays, movies and television productions, may be best remembered as John-Boy Walton, the eldest son in the Emmy award-winning television series THE WALTONS, which ran from 1971-1981.
He's also in the hit television series THE AMERICANS, in which he plays the FBI supervisor Frank Gaad. The show, now in its third season, is a Cold War-era spy thriller. Thomas is able to juggle both roles because the television show is filmed nearby at Eastern Effects Studios in Brooklyn.
Thomas comes aboard You Can't Take It With You as the replacement for Mark Linn-Baker. "This play is just brilliant. It's a fine piece of writing," Thomas said. "If not done right it can go right off the rails and what Scott" -director Scott Ellis -"did is perfect. It's a zany, fun and wonderful play. And being able to share a stage again with James Earl Jones was a real factor in my playing it in the first place."
The family farce revolves around the eccentric Sycamores (and assorted friends), with Jones as the patriarch Martin Vanderhof, the anchor and moral compass. Paul's wife, Penelope (sweetly played by Kristine Nielsen), is a forever-budding artist and writer, daughter Essie (a fetching and hilarious Annaleigh Ashford) is an enthusiastic ballerina-in-training, Essie's husband, Ed (the seemingly rubber-jointed Will Brill), is a talented xylophonist, and daughter Alice (Anna Chlumsky, making her Broadway debut) is the non-Bohemian in the bunch.
Toss in a Russian ballet instructor (a scene-chewing Reg Rogers), Paul Sycamore's fireworks co-inventor/artist's model (Patrick Kerr), Alice's love interest Tony Kirby (Fran Kranz), a cocktail-loving actress (the scene-stealing Julie Halston), Russian royalty (blintz-maker Elizabeth Ashley), some G-Men, a couple of enthusiastic housekeepers (Crystal A. Dickinson and Marc Damon Johnson), upper crust prospective in-laws (Byron Jennings and Johanna Day), and a clutch of well-behaved kittens and you have the makings of a boisterous comedy.
Thomas relates easily to his character. "This is a special situation," he said, describing the family's off-kilter manner. "Paul has a lot of natural enthusiasm for his children and his wife and I feel a great affinity with him."
Thomas, a father of seven and grandfather of four, has empathy for Paul's devotion to family. The Sycamore family is a close-knit bunch of people who live in a majestic Victorian home in 1936 New York City (scenic design by David Rockwell). "Paul is very self-involved, sometimes to the exclusion of his parental duties," Thomas said, "which he would fully admit to.
"What I love in the play, as kooky as they all are, they're very human and all their personalities mesh," Thomas said. "Paul adores his family and accepts them for what they are. I aspire to this.
"I feel very affectionate for the part," he added. "It's not a jokey part, but if I hit it right I make the audience smile." Jones forms the backbone of the family-his Zen-like affability setting the tone of the play, Thomas said. "All of the family members love one another," he said. "Paul genuinely loves his wife and is heartbroken when he learns that his daughter Alice is going away.
"First and foremost, the Sycamores have an essential goodwill for each other," he said. "They assert their opinions but don't try to run anyone's lives. The essential message is we are from the same big family. They've framed every human emotion in this zany play," Thomas said. "Yes, they're completely bonkers in their own way, but the message is acceptance and, do what you love in life.
"It's a great big, silly play, but what happens is you get enmeshed in the text. It's a beautifully structured play-the way things are laid out and resolved. Even though it's an old play it holds together so well, even if some references go right over the audience's head."
Thomas strives to make his character accessible and easy to understand. "The most important thing is to find out where the comedy is and not about asking for laughs," he said. "You have to play it sincerely and straightforward in order to fulfill the role in the script. It's all right there on the page."
Thomas was initially hesitant about joining an ensemble that had established its internal rhythm. "I had several rehearsals with the cast and understudies. It's scary to go into a show as a replacement," he added. "I didn't have a period of several weeks of communal rehearsals.
"Your primary goal as a replacement in an established company is not to undermine the ensemble's rhythm," he said. "It's a very beautifully run show, and whatever I bring will be different. It's essential to honor the production."
Thomas sat through a number of performances before he took over the part. "It's a great way to hear the voices of your colleagues, the tones of the play," Thomas said. "It's important to know what's going on in the house."
Observing the characters onstage helped him focus on the ensemble's interactions. "I wouldn't want to step on someone else's laugh line.
"There are many plays about families out there, but it's very hard to put 19 actors on stage and keep the train on the rails," Thomas said. "The most wonderful feeling to have is when the audience goes along for the ride."
You Can't Take It With You is playing at the Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. Thomas will be in the production through Feb. 22.