At first glance, then, his choice of Gertrude Tonkogony's 1933 comedy, Three-Cornered Moon -- which Ruth Gordon graced on stage and Claudette Colbert starred in on film -- is a head-scratcher. This is a goofball piece featuring a household full of wittily dizzy family members who rather neatly foreshadow the characters in Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's You Can't Take It With You. The three-act play (performed here with only a pause between the second and third acts) takes place in the upper-middle-class Brooklyn home of the oddly named Rimplegars. The year is 1931, but although the country has been mired in the Depression for two years, the family members have barely noticed. Feisty and moody Elizabeth Rimplegar (Maggie Lacey) realizes that her novel-writing boyfriend Donald (Christopher Duva) hasn't two buffalo nickels to rub together, but she chalks it up to his pursuit of art. Brothers Kenneth (Nick Toren), Douglas (Greg McFadden), and Ed (Denis Butkus) laze about the dining-room table ribbing each other. Kenneth, whose Harvard education has conferred on him nothing but an English accent, occasionally quarrels with girlfriend Kitty on the telephone and does pass some time as a law clerk.
When Mother Rimplegar (Mikel Sarah Lambert) receives a series of telegrams informing her that her stocks have sputtered, she's left with no alternative but to relay the grim news to her brood -- who, indeed, brood about what to do next until family friend and eventual boarder Dr. Alan Stevens (Andrew McGinn) insists they get jobs and, in Ken's case, tackle the law boards. Elizabeth lands a Macy's position and the boys apply elbow grease as well, doing so with such diligence that he overworks himself to the point of starvation. Only Donald, now bunking under the leaky Rimplegar roof, fails to heed Stevens's admonition, sensing correctly that the benevolent doctor has cow eyes for Elizabeth. Some time after the Rimplegars have fired their English-language-challenged maid, Jenny (Yetta Gottesman), and sacrificed their Victrola, things do get sorted out: Ken makes the right happily-ever-after decision about the giddy, buxom Kitty (Kathleen Kaefer) and Elizabeth realizes where her sunniest romantic chances lie.
In the course of these frenzied comings-and-goings, Mrs. Rimplegar is almost always addled. She's sure, for instance, that warm milk or a good lie-down are all that's needed to put things in order. Elizabeth devotes much of the first act to indulging a funk and convincing Donald to join her in a suicide pact. She forgets about their deal when the financial news breaks but, while she and the others ponder the problem, Douglas continues gathering paraphernalia for a Rube Goldberg-like suicide contraption he's rigging on the Rimplegars' unseen second-floor. That hardly begins to cover the folderol. This is a play where Douglas interrupts a conversation to try a disappearing handkerchief trick that doesn't work and Kitty drops by to position herself sultrily on the floor while reading Shelley. Eventually, Dr. Stevens threatens to quit the premises because he's weary of having to treat the Rimplegars as if they're children he's raising.
So, what relevance to contemporary life does Forsman see in the rampantly silly and obscurely titled Three-Cornered Moon? Although this dust-collecting Depression relic is amusing and touching in its breathlessness, what does the play have to say to modern audiences? That's where Forsman has been shrewd. He's realized that the influences soaked up by Tonkonogy -- a 24-year-old theater producer's secretary when she penned the piece -- were strikingly similar to today's. During the three weeks she said it took her to get the manuscript out, Tonkonogy may not have realized that she was writing an allegory for her time, but she was. After all, the spirit of the '20s, which the Rimplegars in their insouciance represent, here bumps up harshly against the dispiriting '30s, when cooler heads (represented by Dr. Stevens) needed to prevail. Three-Cornered Moon, then, is a good-natured comedy about adjusting to rudely changing times -- and the allegory connects in 2002, when another Wall Street bubble has burst and those sitting atop that bubble have hit the pavement with a painful thud. Behind Tonkonogy's humor, Forsman has detected the message that people must come to their senses and wise up.
The director has provided another of his invigorating productions. In last season's The Voice of the Turtle, Forsman demonstrated that he could get to the heart of a text, especially one with heart. A few months later, he showed in Museum that he knows how to spark an ensemble. He keeps up the good work here with the help of casting director Jennifer Low Sauer by creating with the actors playing the Rimplegars as convincing an on-stage family as you could hope to find. Do the players really look as if they share the same genes, or has Forsman led them to behave as if they were parts of one comical whole? There are times when they rise as one or pick up lines the way close-knit families have a habit of doing, and that's a delight to watch.
Maggie Lacey, who looks like both Dorothy McGuire and Sally Field, has the intelligence for Elizabeth as well as the requisite sense of fun. Actresses like Colbert and Jean Arthur made names for themselves in these kinds of parts, and Lacey would have what it takes to join that rank were there more roles like this for her to try on. Nick Toren, who played the troubled but undaunted soldier in The Voice of the Turtle, proves he is as much a nimble leading man as Lacey is a charming leading lady. Andrew McGinn summons up the proper blend of level-headedness and longing for Dr. Stevens, and Christopher Duva as Donald -- a part that shifts gears somewhat uncomfortably -- contributes a performance that masks Tonkogony's dramaturgical lapses. Indeed, everyone in the cast -- including Mikel Sarah Lambert, Greg McFadden, Denis Butkus (who faints with pizzazz), Yetta Gottesman, and Kathleen Kaefer -- exudes the underlying optimism that Forsman says is part of the company's reason for being.
High marks to the production team, too, although set designer Nathan Heverin's use of pressed tin as a wall-covering rather than a ceiling amenity in a well-heeled house is questionable. A picky observer might also wonder why, if the Rimplegars are used to finery, the dining-room table is so barely set. And would a breakfast of doughnuts be likely to keep this energetic crowd satisfied? Costumer Theresa Squire has located some swell duds, such as a raccoon coat that Kenneth loans Donald for a job interview he never shows up for. Josh Bradford is the able lighting designer, and sound designer Stefan Jacobs has found some 78s of lilting songs for the Rimplegars to listen to while they are in the chips (or assume they are). Thanks to Carl Forsman, this family is still in the swing of things.