While we are appreciative of the visit to Broadway of a current member of the United Kingdom’s royal family, specifically Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II, as well as by the presence of the more historic King Henry VIII and entourage in “Wolf Hall,” we can also see how America once saw fit to anoint the Barrymore family of actors as its own “Royal Family.” This is the title given to them somewhat audaciously and/or sarcastically by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber in 1927 in their raucous comedy. It has enjoyed numerous revivals over the years. It is the opening play of the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey season, and you should go have yourself a grand time.
The play is said to have been summarily disowned by the Barrymores, the ennobled theater family whose lives appeared to have been satirized. With considerable tongue-in-cheek, the authors, in turn, claimed they never heard of the Barrymores. Nevertheless, the comedy that is assuredly about a theater family of similar stature prompted a less than amused Ethel Barrymore to retaliate some 15 years after the play’s opening. Her response to Kaufman, when asked to appear at a World War II benefit was, “But I’m going to have laryngitis that night.”
Perhaps the esteemed matriarch of the Barrymores didn’t take kindly to criticism about her family, but the rest of us can hardly keep from laughing at the lines and many flippant bon mots that punctuate the fast and often funny, often over-lapping dialogue. Perhaps it is a moot point whether or not the Barrymores themselves inspired this delicious play about the Cavendishes, a family of indomitable actors with insufferable egos.
I can’t honestly say that everything this observer saw on the stage was as celebratory of the “oldest profession” as its often dotty and only occasionally disciplined disciples would like us to believe. But here we have a splendid company, under the direction of Bonnie J. Monte, that has rambunctiously captured the extravagantly familial flavor at the core of the play. It will, however, take some patience and a bit of background for the younger generation to fully appreciate this dynasty of theatrical dinosaurs. At the well-attended mid-week performance I saw, a goodly number of the audience might well have seen the original production.
Incidentally, a Broadway-bound production in 1975 was co-produced by Princeton’s McCarter Theater, where it originated. It starred Rosemary Harris (as daughter Julie) who would return to Broadway in yet another revival in 2009, this time playing the role of Fanny Cavendish, the family’s matriarch.
This production has a lot going for it, particularly graced by a notably regal Elizabeth Shepherd as Fanny. But each member of the ensemble appears as if they have been given a royal command to carry on the tradition validated by its formidable characters.
The riotous chaos begins only seconds away from the time that the lights go up on set designer Charles Murdock Lucas’ handsome evocation of the Cavendishes’ New York City Victorian-accented residence. What could be more fun than starting off a romp with a flustered Irish maid (Emma O’Donnell and an almost giddily servile butler (Patrick Toon) coping with the incessant ringing of door bells and telephones? Except, of course, the intrusion of luggage-hauling porters, a physical trainer in action, and the entrance of the Deans — Herbert (Matt Sullivan) and Kitty (Allison Mackie) a pair of self-serving married actors ever-in-disaccord.
If you love the theater, its lore, and its loonies be assured you will be amused by the sheer ebullience of the Royal Family’s excesses. If the plot appears as uncompromisingly addled as the characters entrusted to it, the text is brilliantly assured. The very royal and redoubtable Cavendish family can be depended upon to put on a show, if only for themselves.
Fanny Cavendish, the ailing queen mother of the family, valiantly ignores the fact that she is cued for her final exit speech. But Fanny is a matriarch in control to the last. Reigning in a manner that could be seen as winningly imperious, Fanny makes sure she retains her star-status even among the scene-stealing assortment of her off-spring. Roxanna Hope is persuasive as daughter Julie, although she is a bit more dependent on her fits of hysteria than on the everyday display of histrionics.
Samantha Bruce is pretty and engaging as Julie’s daughter,
Gwen, who can’t decide between a career and marriage. Fanny’s answer, “Marriage isn’t a career; it’s an incident,” sums up the family’s position.
The major scene-stealing is assigned to Benjamin Sterling, as the incorrigible gone-Hollywood son, whose robust performance is marked by its self-aggrandizing flourishes. Edmond Genest is admirable as the unflappable Oscar Wolfe, the family’s theatrical manager, and Patrick Boll holds his own among the general cacophony and chaos as Julie’s long-term ultra conservative millionaire suitor. Not to be up-staged is the stunning array of 1920s-era costumes designed by Maggie Dick. This is a treat for theater-lovers that never wears out its welcome.
The Royal Family, The Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, through Sunday, June 21, Tuesday and Wednesdays, 7:30 p.m., Thursday and Friday, 8 p.m., Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m., and Sundays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. $32 to $62. 973-408-5600 or www.shakespearenj.org.