Comedies get old. Funny is evergreen.
Presented as evidence, "The Royal Family." At the ripe old age of 82, it remains an amusing look at the lunacies of the theater and the neurotics in it - that is, actors.
Manhattan Theatre Club's new production of the vintage play is handsome, sturdy and diverting, even if it doesn't bring the gale-force guffaws you want.
In 1927, George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber aimed their satire-soaked pens at the Barrymores, America's most celebrated acting family, whom they made over as the Cavendishes, an all-emoting, ego-mad clan living in an East 50s mansion (reliably eye-popping by John Lee Beatty).
Each day brings endless phone calls and a parade of personal melodramas, along with people seeking favors, jobs, reassurance and cash, which sets the stage for broad antics. Scenery-munching is allowed and the cast's incisors are sharp, for the most part. Director Doug Hughes keeps the plots spinning smoothly.
Reigning over the three-ring circus is grande dame Fanny (a restrained Rosemary Harris), who's been out of commission for two years but is ready for a comeback. Her daughter, Julie (Jan Maxwell) - whom Harris played in 1976 on Broadway - is juggling a stage role and a South American tycoon (Larry Pine), while her 19-year-old Gwen (Kelli Barrett) is, to everyone's horror, mulling marriage outside the family business.
Adding fuel to the chaos are Fanny's needy brother, Herbert (John Glover) and his cloddish wife, Kitty (Ana Gasteyer, who's lubed her eyeball sockets for sidelong glances) and Fanny's black-sheep son, Tony (Reg Rogers), a matine idol on the lam from a jilted lover. Oscar Wolfe (Tony Roberts, terrific in the role), the longtime family manager, is the lone voice of reason. (An illness forced Roberts out of the show, but he was set to return last night.)
Maxwell, a stage vet, gets the showstopping part and she squeezes her juicy role for all it's worth, especially a second-act comic aria when an exhausted Julie cracks up from all the upheaval. With eyes flashing, fists pumping and her whole body going kersplat on the floor, Maxwell is a riot.
And she brings equal delight earlier with a simple line before making an announcement to her family - by first ensuring that she's framed perfectly. "Am I center?" she asks, ever the diva who knows the show must go on.
It's a sparkly little moment. What this love letter to the stage needed are a few more of these and some stamps of quirkiness to make this "Royal Family" a truly special delivery.
Hard-core disciples of the religion known as the Theater are scarce on the grounds these days. But two evangelists of that embattled creed have set up camp at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater to attest that the faith lives on. Portraying 1920s stage stars in the Manhattan Theater Club’s Broadway revival of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s “Royal Family,” which opened on Thursday night, Jan Maxwell and Rosemary Harris are giving the kinds of performances that turn agnostics into true believers.
Ms. Harris is Fanny Cavendish, the matriarch of an acting dynasty, and Ms. Maxwell is her daughter, Julie, the reigning goddess of Broadway. And when, in the play’s second act, this mother and daughter start to preach the family gospel to an apostate in their midst, something close to a miracle occurs.
A production that up to that point has seemed merely a handsome, stilted revival of a dated comedy (a genre all too common in Manhattan’s institutional theaters) is suffused with the radiance of the pure, inexhaustible love of an ancient craft. All the usual clichés associated with the thrill of stage acting — from the paralyzing precurtain jitters to the revitalizing embrace of an audience — are not so much spoken as exhaled, as if they were the breath of life.
That Ms. Harris, 82, played Ms. Maxwell’s role in a fondly remembered Broadway production in the mid-1970s adds another layer of sentiment. But even those who know nothing of her history may find themselves moved to tears. What is happening is a blurring of illusion and bone-deep conviction that is peculiar to live theater, as two actresses playing actresses spin hokum into moonlight, just as their characters are said to do.
As reported earlier this week, it briefly looked as if another, less felicitous, melding of art and life might have befallen Doug Hughes’s production of this 1927 comedy. Fanny speaks proudly of her husband’s performing in sickness as well as health. And in a preview on Sunday, Tony Roberts, playing the Cavendish family’s business manager, experienced a minor seizure and became noticeably ill in his first scene, causing the matinee’s cancellation. His understudy, Anthony Newfield, filled in for him for several performances, but Mr. Roberts returned to the production on opening night. (His entrance was received with hearty applause.)
Mr. Roberts, a confident veteran of stage and film, gave a likable, restrained performance at the preview I attended. But it is only when Ms. Maxwell and Ms. Harris are center stage (and this is a play in which everyone vies for that spot) that the show moves from sepia-colored past into flesh-toned present. A satire notoriously inspired by the Barrymore clan, “The Royal Family” has always been a favorite of theater folk, for obvious reasons.
Like Noël Coward’s “Hay Fever” and the musical “Kiss Me Kate,” other larky portraits of people who live and die by the theater, “The Royal Family” allows performers to caricature the narcissism, self-dramatizing and infantile craving for attention that were once said to characterize their profession (and of course have nothing to do with actors as we know them today). It also pulses with the door-slamming farcical sound and fury found in the liveliest of Kaufman’s collaborations (like “You Can’t Take It With You” and “Once in a Lifetime”).
Yet in recent years I haven’t seen a fully satisfying production of “The Royal Family.” Too often the characters become the strutting sum of their affectations, as if they themselves came out of the parody-ready melodramas in which they were sometimes reduced to appearing.
As staged by Mr. Hughes (“Doubt,” this season’s revival of David Mamet’s “Oleanna”), this “Royal Family” takes a while to find its natural rhythm and even then doesn’t always hold on to it. Not all the cast members seem equally at home in John Lee Beatty’s lush rendering of the Cavendish family’s two-tiered apartment, a deluxe playpen for grown-up babies. (Catherine Zuber has provided mouthwatering period costumes to match.)
Fun and games at the Cavendish household include boxing lessons, furniture-toppling fencing matches, random piano playing and dodging the madding crowds that assemble outside once Tony Cavendish (Reg Rogers), a childlike Lothario modeled on John Barrymore, comes home from Hollywood, trailed by a process server with breach-of-promise papers. But the favorite activity for this family’s members is emoting for and at one another, which can grow wearisome if it’s not rooted in real emotional substance.
Mr. Rogers brings a zestful touch of Marx Brothers mania to the swashbuckling Tony, and he combines worldliness with innocence in a way that makes you understand why his mother dotes on him. And the estimable John Glover (late of “Waiting for Godot”) exudes a touching, broken dignity that helps lubricate the stiff-jointed role of Herbert, Fanny’s less successful thespian brother.
But Kelli Barrett, suggesting a standard-issue ingénue from the 1970s instead of the ’20s; Ana Gasteyer, who overdoes the shrillness of Herbert’s tootsie of a wife; and David Greenspan, as the loyal family butler, all seem to have arrived from different planets. (So does Larry Pine, as a rich suitor from Julie’s youth, but then that’s what his part asks for.) They’re not bad, but they’re not credible, either. And their self-consciousness is fatal to farce. (In fairness, I don’t think anyone could do much with the lovers’ dialogue between Ms. Barrett and Freddy Arsenault, as her society swain.)
Joe Orton, the great, subversive comic playwright of swinging London, insisted that farce worked only when played sincerely. Ms. Maxwell and Ms. Harris prove how right he was. Ms. Harris’s Fanny is an artfully subtle creation. Age hasn’t withered her, but it has subdued her, and the actressy poses of a lifetime have become gentle reflexes. You’re aware of the gap between eager spirit and weaker flesh, yet there’s a graceful continuity to every move Fanny makes.
Ms. Maxwell, whose supporting performances were the best things about the Broadway productions of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and “The Dinner Party,” gets the star role she has long deserved and fills it to the fingertips. Like Fanny, this Julie turns the hackneyed notion of “theater in the blood” into biological fact. Both women are wonderful paradoxes, people for whom artifice is truly natural, and as mother and daughter they communicate in a perfect private language to which we are allowed privileged access.
Fanny and Julie are poseurs, for sure, but there is real feeling not just behind but within the poses. As satire, “The Royal Family” is not deathless. But the passion at its heart, as Ms. Maxwell and Ms. Harris make so movingly clear, is forever.
There's a sentimental satisfaction in watching Rosemary Harris -- who played equivocating diva Julie Cavendish in the 1976 Broadway revival of "The Royal Family" -- still navigating the stage with grace and good humor, this time as the clan's proud matriarch, in the play's latest appearance. The rhythms of Doug Hughes' production are too uneven to make all its rewards equal, but George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's 1927 comedy about a New York stage dynasty retains plenty of charm for theater lovers. And while the ensemble work could be tighter, its lead performers rise to the occasion in sparkling turns.
Manhattan Theater Club has brought in a deluxe design team to create the swanky Eastside duplex of the Cavendishes, Kaufman and Ferber's cheeky satirical riff on the Barrymores. John Lee Beatty's lavish set earns a round of applause and envious gasps as the curtain goes up, its grand staircase just made for dramatic entrances, and its walls dripping with the kind of pompous ostentation that befits Manhattan aristocracy with classical aspirations. Costumer Catherine Zuber outfits them in drop-dead 1920s glamourwear that somehow looks effortless.
But the strained initial action -- as the bustling household hums with the constant noise of phones and doorbells, deliveries and other comings and goings -- supplies the first clue that Hughes is not quite at home in this job. Comedy has not been the director's chosen form in his major New York credits, and a vehicle like this one -- whose acerbic witticisms have to contend with a certain creakiness and more whimsical atmosphere than narrative substance -- may not have been the best place to make the switch.
Too often, the play falls back on that dated device of having scenes dissolve into chaos and squabbling, with everyone shouting over one another. Try as he might, Hughes can't make these moments play as anything but stilted mayhem.
But plot is secondary to characterizations here, and as the actors steadily bring definition to their roles, the production does find a workable comic footing, somewhere between the first and second of its three acts.
Inhabiting a world as rarefied and hermetic as a vintage New Yorker cartoon, the Cavendishes, their trusted manager Oscar Wolfe (Tony Roberts) and even their domestic staff (Caroline Stefanie Clay, David Greenspan) regard "normal," nontheatrical folks (playwrights included) with suspicion, bafflement or outright scorn. So the announcement that the lineage's latest budding star, Gwen (Kelli Barrett), will quit the stage to play housewife to stockbroker sweetheart Perry (Freddy Arsenault) spreads panic.
At various points in the play, members of all three generations threaten to stray from their beloved profession. Celebrated leading lady Julie (Jan Maxwell) is tempted by the dependability of Gilbert Marshall (Larry Pine), an emerald-and-platinum magnate who wants to whisk her off to Brazil. Pursued by tabloid reporters and plagued by lawsuits, Julie's brother Tony (Reg Rogers), who has forsaken the stage to become a movie star in the Errol Flynn mold, plans to lie low in Europe. Their widowed mother, grande dame Fanny (Harris), is a trooper determined to continue touring forever, emulating her husband, who died at the end of four curtain calls. But her age and ill health may pose problems.
The family's least talented members are the most unwavering in their commitment to the thespian life: Fanny's brother, Herbert (John Glover), a vain, inveterate ham whose career has stalled, and his crass shrew of a wife, Kitty (Ana Gasteyer), the target of some withering observations from Fanny.
Maxwell is a willowy, fluttering delight as a self-dramatizing woman who thinks in stage directions, rarely uttering a word or striking a pose without first calculating how it plays to her audience -- even during the accelerating hysteria of a beyond-the-brink monologue. Harris delicately balances graciousness and hauteur, while Rogers summons an unpredictable, madcap energy that fits the material and period to a T.
Glover and Gasteyer make a fine comic team as the family sponges, stubbornly oblivious to their pariah status. The sharpness of their bickering interplay doesn't quite extend to the full cast, and Hughes hasn't yet gotten everyone working in perfect sync. But the like-minded mother-daughter bond between Harris and Maxwell is entirely credible, as are the ties of siblings Julie and Tony, one as self-absorbed as the other and both greedy for the spotlight.
Barrett is a weaker link, her Gwen a little low on charm. Oscar perhaps could have used a more wry ethnic flavor, but Roberts ably straddles both sides of a character who's a business-savvy manipulator as well as a trouble-shooting guardian. The eternally droll Greenspan is wasted here, while Pine's and Arsenault's characters belong to another world that doesn't share a common language, cementing their thankless roles as family outsiders.
Kaufman and Ferber's play is both dusty and thin, but what keeps it entertaining is its unambiguous love for the theater, particularly evident in Fanny's touching recital of an actor's nightly pre-curtain rituals. At a time when promising young actors and writers often springboard from early stage recognition to more lucrative careers in television, it's a pleasure to spend time with characters whose theatrical DNA is too strong to be denied. And when Oscar reels the wandering Julie back into the fold with his talk of "the theater of the future," it's tempting to close your eyes and fantasize that the creative explosion of American playwriting is still to come.