The Manhattan Theatre Club‘s production of The Royal Family is a witty send-up of theater families of the past (the Barrymore clan, in particular), but it also contains timely jabs at the nature of celebrity and identity in our current culture. Written by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, and first performed in 1927, modern productions of the play can be seen as a paean to the classic comedies of an earlier era. And under Doug Hughes‘s (Doubt, Oleanna) direction, there is plenty of lively, frantic action in this vein. But memorable performances by Jan Maxwell and Rosemary Harris elevate this production to a higher plane.
The play’s action takes place entirely in the Manhattan apartment of the Cavendish family, but the gorgeously detailed two-floor set by John Lee Beatty provides ample variety. There are currently three generations of Cavendishes living and working under the same roof. Fanny Cavendish, the matriarch of the family, has been kept off the stage in recent years by ill health, but is planning her imminent and triumphant return. Her daughter, Julie, a respected actress, is balancing an active career with caring for her slightly mad family (both old and young). Julie’s daughter, Gwen, a nineteen-year-old with a budding career as an ingÃ©nue, is considering leaving the stage for a “normal” married life with an obtuse young businessman, a prospect her theater family views with bemusement (Fanny objects, “You have a career; marriage is an incident!”). Add to this Julie’s womanizing, film star brother, Tony, who is fleeing both the law and the paparazzi after conflict on his last set; Fanny’s less talented and desperate actor brother, Herbert, and his shrill wife, Kitty; and Oscar Wolfe, the successful agent who has represented the whole family at one point or another, and you have plenty of outsized egos and emotional drama to fuel an energetic three acts.
Rosemary Harris as Fanny Cavendish is a grande dame of the stage playing a grande dame of the stage. From her first entrance, she evokes a sense of complete control and believability in the role of an actor who has experienced and triumphed in every aspect of life in the theater. The timing and nuance of Harris’s delivery gives her some of the best laughs of the show, but she is most masterful in her second act scene describing the unceasing draw of the theater—the transcendent and transient energy created between actor and audience.
Jan Maxwell is equally compelling and radiant in the role of Fanny’s daughter, Julie. She finds a delicate balance between the kind of self-absorption and vanity necessary to be a good actor and true beauty and intelligence. There is a melding of personal and public personas, but she is believably lovely and vibrant in both, even when she performs her larger-than-life meltdown in Act II (a scene that resonates with anyone who has had to deal with a demanding family). And she wears the exquisite period clothes, designed by Catherine Zuber, with innate style.
Notable performances in the smaller roles include John Glover as the stiff and pathetic, but not un-sympathetic, Herbert Dean, and Tony Roberts as the lovable and straightforward family agent. Reg Rogers gives an amusing, loose-limbed performance of the talented but attention-deficit-disordered Tony Cavendish. While his character is completely over the top, Rogers manages to convey a sense of innocent enthusiasm in the midst of self-absorption and the absence of moral discipline, which gives some credence to his family’s continued love for him.
Ana Gasteyer as Kitty Dean and Kelli Barrett as the young Gwen Cavendish never manage to move beyond their characters as caricature, whether of the shrill, over-the-hill actress or the silly ingÃ©nue. They each have amusing moments, but fail to round out their characters or, at least, provide some unexpected insight.
But it is Harris and Maxwell’s performances that give this production its core, because they manage to convey a palpable sense of reality and conviction in the midst of even the most farcical of scenes. Even as the audience is watching the amusing cycle of actors playing actors dissecting the off-stage lives of actors, and pondering questions of identity—is anyone’s devotion to their art this purely focused? Is anyone’s life really this colourful and frenetic, or is real life always a pale shadow of these fictional selves?—we are convinced that theater at its best can be a spiritual communion in which true life is lived and true art is made.