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Lucy Komisar

"The Royal Family"

"The Royal Family."
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York, NY.
Written by George S. Kaufman & Edna Ferber; Directed by Doug Hughes.
Opened October 8, 2009, Closes December 13, 2009.
http://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/current-season/theroyalfamily/default.asp 212-239-6200.
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar October 1, 2009.

If there's a "king" and "queen" in this production of "The Royal Family," the George S. Kaufman-Edna Ferber 1927 parody of the theatrical Barrymores, they are Jan Maxwell and Reg Rogers, who steal the show with their theatricality.

"The Royal Family," Jan Maxwell, Kelli Barrett, Rosemary Harris. Photo by Joan Marcus

The device of the play is that Julie Cavendish (Maxwell) and her daughter Gwen (Kelli Barrett) are torn between their love of the stage and their desire to have married lives. (Well, this play is more than 80 years old!) Their beaux, a controlling multimillionaire rancher and mine owner (Larry Pine) in Julie's case and a well-off stockbroker (Freddy Arsenault) in Gwen's, have more traditional life styles in mind. Playing out the conflict gives everyone in the stage family the chance to sigh and emote about the glories of life on the boards.

Director Doug Hughes is fortunate to have Maxwell, who positively dances when she walks; she sparkles, she flirts. "Am I center?" she asks as she's about to address the family. Her "I am never going to act again" in grande dame stage manner is as front and center as any actress would want. As Julie Cavendish, a stand-in for the première actress, Ethel Barrymore, she is more kittenish than I would have expected, and Ethel at the time wrote her displeasure at the portrayal.

"The Royal Family," Rufus Collins, Rosemary Harris, Reg Rogers. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Rogers as her brother Tony, the John Barrymore character, is theatrical in every muscle, with a breathless plosive speech and a charm that make the stage light up when he is on. His conjures up the swashbuckling John in a sword play with Julie's trainer (Rufus Collins). If Tony is supposed to be a drinker and womanizer, he comes across more as a playful puppy.


Rosemary Harris is the real grande dame as Fanny, the old star and now a grandmother, and her dramatic paean to the theater is gem. Barret is sweet as the ingénue, though her spirit seems more modern than the 20s. The two represent the beginning and the end. Gwen delights at the prospect of being a star, and Fanny won't recognize that she is too ill to go on the road.

"The Royal Family," Anna Gasteyer, John Glover. Photo by Joan Marcus.

All that said, Hughes' revival occasionally falls flat. The production starts especially slow in the first scene of phones ringing and servants running, though the pace picks up. Fanny's brother Bertie (John Glover) and his wife Kitty (a too shrill Ana Gasteyer), are rather grating as they spend a lot of time fighting with each other and trying to promote their waning talents. Casting a fey David Greenspan as the butler was an egregiously wrong choice, hardly the properly regal servant this caviar-eating 1920s family would have.

What passed for wit and charm then doesn't always make it now. Julie jokes about the author of her new play, who they are going to meet, that if he's English, he'll probably be lecturing the next day. Quaint. A throwaway remark about "Little Lord Fauntleroy" does not spark recognition. It made more sense in 1927.

John Lea Beatty has created a stunning set: damask covered French style furniture, a gold wrought iron balustrade going up the stairs, cream pillars, miniature knights in armor, over the fireplace a painting of a Shakespearean actor who turns out to be Fanny's late husband. Indeed they are the touches of royalty.

In the end, the actors pull it off, proving that when fine players such as these, in the tradition of the Barrymores, take to the stage, they are a delight to behold.

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