The Royal Family

(front) Ross Bickell, Jennifer Regan, Helena Ruoti, David Whalen
After a sumptuous Broadway revival production last season, The Royal Family is welcomed into the O'Reilly Theater in a crackling production. Eighty-three years after its original Broadway debut, George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's play about a family of the "the-ah-ter" still charms and tickles the funny bone. Audiences in 1927 were familiar with John and Ethel Barrymore, and were titillated by the fact that such real-life theatre royalty were parodied in this play (John was apparently amused, Ethel not so much). Through the years, such characters have become familiar types, and we can delight in their antics even without realizing how close to reality they once were.

The modest O'Reilly stage fairly bursts with the opulent set of a duplex apartment fit for such a grand clan—James Noone once again outdoes himself, this time with palatial results (complete with a sturdy staircase, thankfully). Noone stops just short of "too much," which is the theme of the evening. Susan Tsu's costumes are rich and gorgeous. Many elements are heightened: the voices, the gestures, the movement, the drama. Director Ted Pappas steps to the edge of overdoneness, but doesn't cross the line. One more decibel, a slightly quicker double-take, a more arched eyebrow, and we might have been taken aback by, and not just taken by this cast. Jenny Sterlin is excellent as the dryly droll grande dame Fanny Cavendish (the legendary Rosemary Harris played this role in the 2009 Broadway revival). Local favorite Helen Ruoti is daughter Julie Cavendish (the same Rosemary Harris played this role in the 1975 Broadway revival), a woman wed to the stage; the role fits like a glove and Ruoti is winning. Julie's brother Tony, who doesn't just live life to the fullest, but acts it just as fully, is played by David Whelan, who continues to expand his versatility before our eyes; it's a role that is meant to be broad, and that's exactly what we get. Julie's daughter Gwen is the third-generation actress; she certainly is no shrinking violet, but a little nuance would improve Lindsey Kyler's performance in the role.

Fanny is planning a return to the stage after a brief setback—she hopes to tour. Julie wants to retire from the stage and try being a regular wealthy wife. Gwen is not sure what she wants. With the second intermission representing a break of one year, we are privy to important turns in the lives of each of these women. In the meantime, the house bustles with activity as Tony comes and goes, as well as Fanny's less successful brother Herbert Dean (Ross Bickell) and his talent-free wife Kitty (Jennifer Regan), Gwen's fiance Perry (Evan Alex Cole), Julie's old boyfriend/new suitor Gilbert (Daryll Heysham), and the family manager Oscar (Larry John Meyers). Zeva Barzell, James Fitzgerald, Tony Bingham , Karen Merritt, Matt Lane and Charlie Wein efficiently play characters who efficiently keep the house humming.

It's a busy show, but the real arc is the series of inevitable steps adults take in life, by choice and by fate, whether or not they are a part of a royal family. It's a tribute to the fine writing and to this production that, although we might find the characters irritating if we had to deal with them in person, we are quite touched by the sentimentality at play's end. Bravo and brava.

The Royal Family continues at the O'Reilly Theater through October 31 for Pittsburgh Public Theater. For performance and ticket information, call 412-316-1600 or visit

Photo couresy of Pittsburgh Public Theater

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-- Ann Miner

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