By Jane Hope Fox
If the 21st century has been getting to you lately, what with the jarring intrusion of the ubiquitous cell phone, too much reality on reality TV and the never ending healthcare debates, then go immediately to the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on West 47th Street where you will find yourself instantly transported to a very different New York. Here you will discover the old New York of elegance and glamour in The Royal Family, a new Broadway revival of the 1927 George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber comedy about the drama filled lives of a fictional theatrical clan based on the real life Barrymores: siblings John, Ethel and Lionel (currently represented by John’s grand daughter Drew). The original version ran for 345 performances. Kaufman and Ferber’s other famed collaborations were Dinner at Eight and Stage Door.
As the house lights dim, a piano plays a regal processional march and the curtain rises on the very chic midtown duplex apartment of the great Cavendish family. At the performance I attended, the set, extravagantly designed by John Lee Beatty, received its own applause. Theatre superstition deems this bad luck, but I think not, in this case. The glittering Cavandish clan conducts their daily (anything but humdrum) lives reading scripts, dashing to performances and evading photographers camped outside their front door. All of this, while the family is dressed to the nines in dinner jackets, backless gowns, and fabulous fur- trimmed coats, as they sip cocktails and go on about the very intense business of being actors. There are even a few moments left at the end of a busy day for romance, as long as it remains in its proper place.
“Cyclones, fire and flood, and still you do the show,” a Cavendish asserts. Sure, it’s a little corn- ball. And yes, you can almost hear the chorus of “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” being hummed in the wings. But after 82 years, The Royal Family still can stand on its own. Doug Hughes, (Tony Award winner for Broadway’s Doubt and Frozen) the director of the Manhattan Theatre Club production, wisely, does not try to modernize the play and the snappy American wisecracking dialogue of the period still works. The role of Julie Cavendish, the prima donna Broadway star, based on Ethel Barrymore, is played with stylish panache by Jan Maxwell (Tony nominations for Coram Boy and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang). She delivers lines such as, “marriage isn’t a career, it’s an incident,” with just the right amount of exaggerated drama and old-fashioned flourish. Ethel Barrymore was approached to play herself in the original version. Not only did she decline, she also threatened to sue!
Yes, there is farce, frippery, and fluff, on stage throughout the performance, but the audience is also in the presence of a consummate cast. The Second Act begins to pick up steam and by the third, the audience was completely on board and caught up in the fun, enjoying this free-wheeling comedy to its fullest. Fanny Cavendish, played by Rosemary Harris, (an eight time Tony nominee and winner for The Lion in Winter) is the grand dame in residence. Her elegant presence always keeps her just beyond the farcical fray. And her final scene in Act Three, brings an unexpected touching eloquence to the play when she says, “When one Cavendish drops out, there will always be another to take his place.” Thirty years ago, Rosemary Harris played the daughter Julie in an earlier revival of The Royal Family; now she has inherited the role of Fanny Cavendish, Julie’s mother, and she carries the mantle well.
Herbert Dean, Fanny’s brother, played with wit and comedic restraint by John Glover, (Tony winner for Love! Valour! Compassion!) is a middle-aged rake. “In pink lights, I can pass for thirty-five,” he says hopefully. Ana Gasteyer, (Wicked, six seasons on Saturday Night Live) is the only cast member who doesn’t seem quite right for the part. She plays Kitty, Bertie’s wife, in an overly abrasive, one-dimensional style; a little too lower class for this bunch. There are good, well cast performances given by Tony Roberts, (of Woody Allen film fame) Kelli Barrett, Anthony Newfield, et al. But best of all, is the very funny Reg Rogers as Tony Cavendish, the heavy drinking womanizer based on John Barrymore. The original role of Tony, in the 1934 London production, was played by Laurence Olivier and directed by Noel Coward. Those acting shoes are large ones to fill, but Rogers’ wonderful comedic timing, great physical humor and stamina, keep the pace lively and the laughs coming whenever he is on stage. And speaking of that 1934 London production, it was titled Theatre Royal, not The Royal Family, so that the audience wouldn’t think that it was a play about the British Royal Family.
Serendipitously, the day I saw the show (still in previews, opening on October 8th) there was a post performance discussion of the play featuring Anne Kaufman, George S. Kaufman’s daughter, Julie Gilbert, Edna Ferber’s grand niece, and Foster Hirsch, film professor and author. Both women agreed that the sentimentality of the play was all Edna’s. Anne Kaufman said, “my father was funny and tough, he was not sentimental. Edna is where the sentimentality of the play came from, but they both adored and lived for the theatre.”
Indeed, “the play’s the thing,” is the theme of this big, old-fashioned comedy. And though it may not appeal to everyone, if you are of a certain age, or simply enjoy a backward glance to a different time of elegance and manners, then this delightful revival is “the thing” for you.
The Royal Family
Manhattan Theatre Club
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street (Between Broadway and Eighth Avenue)