The George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber 1927 play “The Royal Family” has returned triumphantly to Broadway in a Manhattan Theatre Club production. The play is said to have been summarily disowned by the Barrymores, the ennobled theater family whose lives appeared to have been satirized. With satirical 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 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.
Happily, everything this observer saw on the stage was a splendid celebration of the theater and its often dotty and only occasionally disciplined disciples. A splendid company, under the direction of Doug Hughes, has fully captured the extravagantly familial flavor at the core of the play and fully resurrected a proper dynasty of theatrical dinosaurs.
This production is not only graced with the presence of Rosemary Harris as family matriarch Fanny Cavendish, but each member of the ensemble appears as if they have been literally commanded to carry the mantle of a great or even near-great tradition. Not incidentally, Harris played the role of Fanny’s daughter, Julie, in the 1975 Broadway revival (a co-production with McCarter Theater, where the revival originated).
Things look bright and busy as the curtain rises on set designer John Lee Beatty’s resplendently decorated evocation of the Cavendishes’ New York City residence. What could be more fun than starting off a romp with a flustered maid (Caroline Stefanie Clay) and an almost giddily servile butler (played by the inspired and definitely over-qualified David Greenspan) coping with the incessant ringing of doorbells and telephones, the intrusion of luggage-hauling porters, a physical trainer in action, and the entrance of the Deans — Herbert (John Glover) and Kitty (Ana Gasteyer) — a pair of battling married actors? Both Glover and Gasteyer are to be commended for performances that are a brilliant testament to fearless abandon.
If you love the theater, its lore and its loonies, you can expect to be swept away by the sheer ebullience of “The Royal Family’s” excesses. If the plot appears, in these less conspicuously adoring days, as uncompromisingly addled as are the characters entrusted to it, the text is brilliantly assured. To be sure, 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 Cavendishes, 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 hardly be called imperious, Fanny makes sure she retains her star-status even among the scene-stealing assortment of her offspring. With a flair for earthy resonance, Harris assumes a regality that commands attention rather than awe.
I was, however, awed by Jan Maxwell, as daughter Julie, who tosses off gems such as “Midnight isn’t as kind to me as it used to be,” even as she aggressively engineers our affection with a bravura performance of conspicuous over-statement. Kelli Barrett 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 Reg Rogers as the incorrigible gone-Hollywood son, whose performance (as he out-Barrymores John Barrymore) is marked by its florid flourishes. Tony Roberts is admirable as the unflappable Oscar Wolfe, the Cavendish’s theatrical manager and Larry Pine brings a refreshing restraint to the general chaos as Julie’s long-term millionaire suitor. Not to be overlooked are the florid flourishes that costume designer Catherine Zuber has lavished upon the 1920s costumes. ****
The Royal Family,” through Sunday, December 13, Manhattan Theater Club at Samuel J. Friedman Theater, 261 West 47th Street. $57.00 to $111. 212-239-6200.