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Elizabeth Ashley Says You Won't Be Bored at You Can't Take It With You

And you know this tough-talking Tony winner wouldn't lie.

The current Broadway revival of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's Pulitzer Prize-winning classic You Can't Take It With You is stocked from lights-up to curtain-down with theatrical heavy hitters. Legendary actor James Earl Jones leads the cast as Martin Vanderhof, with Annaleigh Ashford as Essie, Rose Byrne as Alice, and Kristine Nielsen as Penelope Sycamore. With Tony winner Elizabeth Ashley as the play's self-described 11-o'clock number, even the supporting roles are star-powered.

As Olga, a former Russian royal who's more talked about than seen, Ashley has had a chance to get to know the play "from the outside in" while listening to the onstage dialogue through the intercom in her dressing room. The seasoned actress recently shared her special viewpoint (and unique candor) with TheaterMania in a conversation that covered everything from 1950s New York City to play structure, and the (not really) changing times.

Elizabeth Ashley is featured as Olga in You Can't Take It With You on Broadway.
(© Joan Marcus)

How are previews going?

They're packed, and people are stomping, whooping, and yelping. I've rarely been in a play that the audiences just seem to absolutely love so much.

It's an unusual play in this day and age in that it's very pertinent and it addresses many issues that are very much on people's minds currently, but it's a very optimistic, sweet, warm, and extremely funny play — but without one drop of sentimentality, which for me is just death…You take all of that, and you put it in the hands of perhaps one of the two most brilliant directors working today, and I bet you will never see that many grade A, top-of-the-food-chain Broadway regulars, working all at their A game on the same stage at one time.

The play is one of those American classics that's done in every high school and every community theater and every forever and ever. But I think this is, dare I say, probably far and away the best production ever done, except for maybe the original one in 1936.

Elizabeth Ashley at the opening night of You Can't Take It With You.
(© David Gordon)

How do you think Kaufman and Hart had the foresight to write a play that ended up being so relevant in the future?

I don't think it was foresight. I think the world is just very much in the same place. I mean, we're on the verge of dare I say world war. And this play was at the depths of the Depression or just when people were beginning to believe that maybe, maybe there might be respite from the Depression in 1936. And I mean, God knows, it's much worse now. You can't hide the corruption at the center of the financial world the way it was then. It was a much more innocent time.

How does Olga fit in?

Oh dear, she's the 11-o'clock number. It's a great job because usually I do those big plays where I'm having to carry a huge load. This is just wonderful because I don't come on until the third act and I have this sort of wonderful scene. She's a character [who's] talked about all through the play and then you finally get to see her. She's basically a Russian duchess who's emigrated because of the situation in the world, and she's working as a waitress. You know, when I first came to New York, when I was just eighteen in like 1958, never having been north of Georgia, I remember women who worked in Bloomingdales and B. Altman and those kind of stores — they were all Russian, and they all had some story about how they were a relative of the Tsar.

Does being the 11-o'clock number give you a unique perspective on the play?

Normally when you're working and you're doing one of those huge parts, you become so subjective in rehearsal that you have no sense of what it's like from the outside in. But because I'm the 11-o'clock number, I'm usually in my dressing room just about the time the curtain goes up, so I hear the play night after night, over the intercom. And it's amazing because I never get bored listening to it. But the structure of this play…behind every really fine play is a structure and this [one] is just book, letter, and verse on structure…And as we all know, when one goes to the theater, even when it's something pretty good, you do have those ass-aching moments. And there's not one of those in this show, which I think is extraordinary.

You'd tell the truth about that.

I'm kind of known for no bullsh*t.