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Monday, 12 October 2009 11:51

Broadway Review: "The Royal Family"

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The Royal Family
Jan Maxwell, Kelli Barrett and Rosemary Harris in The Royal Family
Photo: Joan Marcus

The Manhattan Theatre Club’s lavish new revival of The Royal Family, the 1927 Edna Ferber  and George S. Kaufman  comedy snaps, crackles and pops under the sharp direction of Dough Hughes (Doubt).   The old chestnut, loosely based on the Barrymore clan runs a weighty three hours with two intermissions.  For all that, it never bogs down or stops vibrating thanks to a fine cast led by theatre grand dame Rosemary Harris and future theatre royalty Jan Maxwell. 

The Cavendish family is a theatrical dynasty that includes three generations of actors led by the widowed matriarch, Fanny, radiantly inhabited by Ms. Harris.  In the 1975 production of this play Ms. Harris played the role of the daughter, Julie now played by Maxwell.  The rest of the clan includes Fanny’s brother Bert, an aging and fading star likably played by John Glover (Waiting for Godot) and his garishly made-up wife Kitty, played by SNL alum Ana Gasteyer (Three Penny Opera) in a plum role.  She provides a wonderfully harsh contrast to the grace and elegance of the Cavendish women of whom she is insanely jealous.  Julie’s daughter Gwen is played by the ever-so-perky Kelli Barrett.  While their mother Fanny prepares for a new production, both younger Cavendish women are conflicted about staying in the business or giving it up for love and the chance at a less tortured life.  As the lothario bad-boy brother, Reg Rogers turns in a swash-buckling and over-the-top performance.  He’s on the run from a process server trying to serve him breach-of-promise papers, a film director he punched out and a movie production company he has walked out on mid-filming.

The Royal Family
Ana Gasteyer and Reg Rogers in The Royal Family
Photo: Joan Marcus

The play also has ancillary characters that are just as full of vim and vigor and just as richly created by their respective actors.  The butler, Jo played by David Greenspan is a delight as he scampers around the multi-level set at the behest of the Cavendish family responding with lines that are supposed to be straight lines but are very funny coming out of his mouth.  Caroline Stefanie Clay plays Della the maid in a performance all her own. 

The evening I saw the show Tony Roberts was out sick.  He plays Oscar the family’s manager.  A week prior Roberts was taken ill with a mild seizure at the start of a weekend matinee that was subsequently cancelled.  He came back to play opening night.  He had played the afternoon matinee the day I saw it but was persuaded to take the evening show off to rest.  In his stead was understudy Anthony Newfield who did a commendable job. 

Rosemary Harris, at the age of 83 is a wonder to behold.  She moves about the stage and strikes poses as fluidly as a woman half her age.  Jan Maxwell gets her just reward after making much out of nothing in her last Broadway outing, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  Her performance, particularly her tour-de-force monologue that culminates in her throwing herself on the floor at the end of Act II is worth the price of admission alone. 

The duplex set by John Lee Beatty is gorgeous in its detail and filigree.  Catherine Zuber’s costumes are luscious and Kenneth Posner’s lighting is spot on (you’ll pardon the pun) considering you have a set that is intricate and most likely very difficult to light given the depth, nooks and crannies of Mr. Beatty’s set. 

Despite the mayhem of sword fights, family squabbles, farcical door slamming, mobs at the front door, swamis, monkeys, and the constant ring of doorbells and phones, the play has a sentimental ending that that belies the generally comedic nature of the play and makes you realize why 80 years later, this classic still captivates.  Don’t miss this chance to see a superb cast in a taught production of a an old chestnut that’s roasted to perfection.


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Read full production credits at the Broadway Internet Database

Review Roundup:

Michael Kuchwara for Associated Press - "Oh, those theater folks! They do carry on. And the way they cavort and complain has been captured perfectly in the effervescent Manhattan Theatre Club revival of "The Royal Family," the still sturdy 1927 comedy by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber."

Ben Brantley for The New York Times – “As staged by Mr. Hughes (“Doubt,” this season’s revival of David Mamet’s “Oleanna”), this “Royal Family” takes a while to find its natural rhythm and even then doesn’t always hold on to it. Not all the cast members seem equally at home in John Lee Beatty’s lush rendering of the Cavendish family’s two-tiered apartment, a deluxe playpen for grown-up babies.”

Elysa Gardener for USA Today – “…a good vehicle for Maxwell's emotional intelligence and capacity for tenderness. It's impossible to imagine an actress who would be more credible or likable, or funnier, as this harried working mom who just happens to be a celebrated thespian.”

David Sheward for Backstage – “Hughes commands his thespian troops with the precision of a military strategist.”

Last modified on Thursday, 10 December 2009 21:37