Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 8, 2009
The Royal Family by George S. Kaufman & Edna Ferber. Directed by Doug Hughes. Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Catherine Zuber. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Sound design by Darron L. West. Original music by Maury Yeston. Hair & wig design by Tom Watson. Fight Director Rick Sordelet. Animals provided by William Berloni. Cast: Ana Gasteyer, John Glover, Rosemary Harris, Jan Maxwell, Larry Pine, Tony Roberts, Reg Rogers, Freddy Arsenault, Kelli Barrett, Caroline Stefanie Clay, Rufus Collins, David Greenspan, Anthony Newfield, Henny Russell, Cat Walleck, John Wernke.
Those two diversions in Doug Hughes’s fitfully amusing rendition of the play are even ones you’ve likely heard of: Ethel and John Barrymore. Okay, technically they’re named Julie and Tony Cavendish. But as the former is a tempestuous, indecisive, and self-promoting diva who lives her life like a malfunctioning rollercoaster, and the latter a fast-living, danger-seeking matinee idol attracted by frivolous relationships and the easy art of motion pictures, there’s not really much doubt. Nor is there any question, judging by the catapult-force performances of Jan Maxwell and Reg Rogers, that these two have not only earned their fame and notoriety, but deserve to echo down to today.
Julie is at the center of the action, more by presence of will than anything else. A renowned, elegant actress in public, behind the closed doors of the Cavendish townhouse in the East 50s she can barely prosecute her own affairs without kindling arguments with her family or exploding in a torrent of mezzanine-splitting rage. If she needs to be, she’ll make herself an eye-batting coquette to coax a lover. But when the frustration mounts, her natural murmur becomes a scream and she’ll throw propriety to the wind and her body to the floor in pristinely manufactured despair - until her half-hour call dissolves it with amazing instantaneousness.
If Maxwell hasn’t yet completely bridged these qualities, each on its own is exquisitely carved. She doesn’t walk into the Cavendish living room (the sumptuous design of John Lee Beatty, combining pre-Depression kitsch with Old-American stardust): She sweeps, her hand flying unbidden to her forehead to communicate her anguish, her voice alternately fluttering, whimpering, and roaring depending on what her current role calls for. Maxwell carries herself with the straight-shouldered gait of an insecure beauty who knows her power but doubts it all the same - her Julie is constantly in control, but not always sure she should be. She’s by turns vicious and vulnerable and, at the close of the second of three acts, when confronting a possible repeat of the “mistakes” that define her, violently hilarious in emoting Julie’s conjured despondence with her unruly brood.
Hughes has staged the show well, with the proper balance of frantic and defeated energy to summon a home as unpredictably chaotic as backstage during a flop. Catherine Zuber’s outlandish costumes, Kenneth Posner’s lights, and Maury Yeston’s period-evoking music (notable for their lovely, strains of liquid piano) help complete the picture of these castle-bound American green-room bluebloods. But the other Cavendishes and their cohorts are considerably more down to Earth than Julie and Tony, to their detriment as well as the play’s.
As Fannie, the matriarch, Rosemary Harris (who played Julie in Ellis Rabb's celebrated 1975 revival of the show) has the look and voice of a proscenium grande dame, but not enough exaggerated fire to pinpoint her ability to hold the stage during a time Edwin Booth owned. Plus, though a considerable portion of the play concerns Fannie’s own yearning but ebbing ability to return to touring one of her personal warhorses, Harris conveys far too much vitality for there to be serious doubt. Kelli Barrett plays Gwen, Julie’s breaking-through daughter, with an enlivening spunk but none of the spark that would have absolutely categorized the next great star in the ‘20s. John Glover’s pea-soupy voice is just right for Fannie’s brother, Herbert, a past-his-prime leading man-cum-playwright fighting a losing battle to regain the appearance of youth; but he’s all cream and no coffee, not desperate or deceived enough to convince as someone weaving his own last ropes.
Ana Gasteyer is the right kind of comedienne for Herbert’s fading-fading-faded wife, Kitty, with automatic eyebrows and indignation to spare, but her carriage and line deliveries are more modern than faux-modernistic. Freddy Arsenault and Larry Pine are two sides of the same coin as Gwen’s and Julie’s lotharios: nice-looking and -sounding, but set pieces ready for chewing rather than purveyors of ripely optimistic men who don’t know they’re out of their depth. David Greenspan and Caroline Stefanie Clay make the most of their comic background roles as the Cavendishes’ servants.
Oscar Wolfe, the Cavendishes’ devoted manager, is normally played by Tony Roberts, who experienced an onstage seizure this past weekend and has missed several performances during his recuperation - including the one I attended. But his understudy, Anthony Newfield, was more than up to the task, letting Oscar be as sturdy, caring, and entrepreneurial as he must be to represent the business side of the Cavendishes’ show world. And he truly blossomed in the third act, when faced with having to tell Fannie her career is over, never losing sight of the history-changing gravity of the decision or the personal blow it would represent for a woman who needs acting as most people need air. It’s as close as this sparkling script gets to tear-jerking; at least with Newfield, it gets very close indeed. (Roberts is slated to return to the production by next week.)
The saddest part of The Royal Family is nothing Kaufman and Ferber wrote. When the play opened on Broadway in December of 1927 (immediately following the soon-to-be-legendary musical based on Ferber’s novel about another generation-spanning family of performers, Show Boat), theatre was still conceivable as an inheritable profession. But the world in which Gwen’s son, Aubrey, who’s born during the play, will grow up in won’t resemble anything his parents or their parents had known; it will be considerably less hospitable to the notion of “continuing the line” without direct Hollywood intervention. Aubrey is, in that sense, the last of the Cavendishes, but thanks to Maxwell and Rogers, for the moment their bygone spirit is burning brightly once again.