The Royal Family
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 10, 2009
Some reasons to see the new revival of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's The Royal Family, at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre:
- Performances by Rosemary Harris and Tony Roberts, both of whom are always welcome presences on any stage. Harris is one of our very finest actresses and also one of our few bona fide theatre stars; like Julie Harris and Cherry Jones and Carol Channing and a handful of others, she seems to be lit from within, radiating warmth and energy, holding our focus no matter what she does (or doesn't do). And Roberts, after a bit of a health scare, is in fine fettle, and he's brilliantly cast as the elderly manager of the Cavendish (read: Barrymore) clan of actors who are the main characters of this play.
- A chance to see an early, pre-Moss Hart George S. Kaufman play. Indeed, the outlines of their finest work, You Can't Take It With You, are all over The Royal Family: a family of larger-than-life eccentrics/nut jobs, cocooned for the most part within their own protected world, find themselves embroiled in relationships (here, mostly of the romantic variety) with "normal" emissaries from outside. Who will dominate is never in doubt, but whereas in the later play Kaufman and Hart find a way for the outsiders (and the audience) to learn something interesting from their outlandish heroes and heroines, here there is little to take away except that old adage, "the show must go on."
- A rare glimpse at what the world thought of the Barrymore Family at the height of their prowess, circa 1927, when The Royal Family was first produced. Ethel and John were enormous theatre stars of the kind that simply do not exist anymore, and even though this play's John character (Tony Cavendish) has already sold out to Hollywood, we still get a sense for the kind of charismatic and all-consuming presence he must have been. As for Ethel—her representative in the play, Julie Cavendish, is a monstre sacre: spoiled, temperamental, mercurial, utterly self-involved, and consummately professional.
The Royal Family takes these two stand-ins for real-life theatrical royalty, along with the matriarch of their clan, Fanny, and lets audiences ogle them for two and a half hours, and also enjoy watching Julie and her daughter, up-and-coming theatrical princess Gwen, grapple with romances neither one is wholly suited for. It is very much a theatre of personality, and sadly most of the actors in this revival don't convey quite enough of that. Jan Maxwell never convinced me for one second that thousands of people would pay top dollar to see her season after season in any vehicle she trotted out (which more or less was what Ethel Barrymore's fans did do in the '20s). Reg Rogers channels John Barrymore's mellifluous voice and outsized manner but it's only in the final scenes that we get any kind of sense of the legend. Kelli Barrett barely registers as Gwen. Harris as Fanny, on stage, happily, for much of the play, is the commanding, delightful anchor.
Director Doug Hughes has staged the play at a somewhat laggard pace. Some of his choices do not really work: casting downtown theater star David Greenspan as the butler, Jo, is the oddest and least successful, with Greenspan winking ironically at just about every one of his lines, his postmodern style so at odds with the period of the play. John Lee Beatty's busy set is so crammed with details that it made it hard to see just what was there, at least from my seat in the rear of the orchestra.
Many of the references are badly dated; for example, at one point Julie suggests that a couple of the horsemen of the apocalypse might be on a ship from South America to New York, a reference to Valentino's iconic first hit film that pretty much no one in the audience picked up on. Indeed, the whole idea of a family of actors not just supporting themselves but thriving as theatre stars is alien to people even of my generation: what, I wondered, can young people make of the tribe of dinosaurs being celebrated here?
What surprised me most about The Royal Family was finally not that MTC's revival seemed to have no raison d'etre but that the play itself is creaky and past its prime in ways that make it difficult to understand why it's worth doing in a first-class production. Surely the million dollars (or whatever the sum) could be better used to develop something new and meaningful.