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The Royal Family

George Kaufman & Edna Ferber

Like doctors and lawyers, stage actors are professionals, leading lives that are built on rigorous training and that demand extraordinary dependability. Their work, even when appreciated and rewarded, is not understood by outsiders. The differences between stage actors and other professionals would more readily be seen to be superficial if our society were as intolerant of amateur theatricals as it is of amateur litigation and amateur surgery. The fact that actors must work when other professionals are off duty is also distracting, particularly as it seems to promote the enviable luxury of sleeping in. Finally, there is the little matter of applause. Doctors and lawyers have their moments of triumph, to be sure, but not every day, not night after night. Small wonder, then, that even though stage actors are thought to be fun-seeking bohemians, they are actually more compelled than doctors and lawyers are to do excellent work. Lawyers and doctors voluntarily retire, often with pleasure. Stage actors do not. They work until they die — not onstage, of course, but after the fourth curtain call on the closing night of the run.

This is the lesson taught by that extremely well-made piece of classic theatre, The Royal Family, a play that matches its title characters for professionalism as well as ιlan vital. Just as the three generations of Cavendishes have devoted themselves to filling theatres with satisfied customers, so Kaufman and Ferber have constructed a plot that always shows where it's going, but vaguely enough to allow for many delightful surprises, each of which teases the audience with the feeling that it ought to have "seen it coming." I mean no deprecation when I say that The Royal Family is a bedtime story for grown-ups, balancing familiarity and novelty in complete equipoise. The principal effect of this comfortable construction is to direct our undivided attention to the casting — which must therefore be very, very good. In addition to the troupe of thoroughly professional actors, all that's required is a director brilliant enough to give genius free rein while keeping mortal bodies out of each others' way. For the Manhattan Theatre club's revival of The Royal Family, Lynne Meadow and Barry Grove have more than met this rather demanding minimum. The expert Doug Hughes directs a stunningly capable and entertaining cast. Even the Cavendishes would be impressed. 

The Royal Family is not an ensemble piece. It has a standout dramatic lead and an irresistible cameo. These are both for women. The principal male role, in contrast, is not dramatic at all, but essentially clownish — in the high Italian sense of clowning. Surrounding the core trio is a bank of well-drawn types, comic and appealing by turns. In true well-made style, the curtain goes up on a parlormaid (Caroline Stefanie Clay) who quickly establishes a foundation of domestic sanity with the butler (David Greenspan). One rung up from these wonderfully animated stock characters, we find the satellite royals, a pair of less than stellar hams (John Glover and Ana Gasteyer); the avuncular, long-suffering producer (Tony Roberts); and the civilians (Freddy Arsenault and Larry Pine) who dream not so much of marrying into the royal family as of withdrawing two ladies from it. The younger of these ladies is the soubrette (Kelli Bartlett), as gifted (they say) as her mother and grandmother, but young enough to imagine that she might prefer normal life. The elder — the star of the show — is Julie Cavendish, the soubrette's mother, an actress at the top of her game who is old enough to regret having "lived for art," as Tosca puts it. Angelically floating above the dramatic machinery is Julie's mother, Fanny (Rosemary Harris). Fanny doesn't do much of anything, but she asserts a great deal of theatrical wisdom. She must be played by a great actress indeed, because the part of Fanny is the beating heart of the show. The audience will find nourishment in The Royal Family to the extent that it cares about this veteran actress, who, after a prolonged illness, is determined to return to the boards. The actress playing Fanny must not only show the audience that the comeback is not going to happen, but do it without making a foolish old lady of Fanny. It is very important that Fanny, while amusing, not be funny.

Rosemary Harris has no trouble with any of this, but that hardly needs saying; she is the grandest dame on Broadway. In a lovely bit of pantomime at the end, she gives us an idea of Fanny's stage manner, and it's beautiful even though we can clearly read it as utterly outdated for 1928. Only a first-time theatre-goer could mistake her restraint for under-acting. As a kind of crown, we know that, when The Royal Family was last revived on Broadway, in 1975, Ms Harris played Julie Cavendish to the Fanny of Eva LaGallienne.

Playing Julie this time round is Jan Maxwell, and if Ms Maxwell ever gives a more brilliant performance, I certainly hope that I'll be there to see it. The actress has a knack for suffering fools gladly but not without the recognition that their stupidity may very well bring about the end of the world as we know it, and this hint of tragedy gives the production a meatiness that keeps it from floating away into the land of "Tennis, anyone?" Certainly there is nothing in all of Racine to equal the stunning tirade — in Ms Maxwell's hands, it becomes more of a showstopping aria out of Puccini or Strauss — at the end of Act II, a grand renunciation of the theatrical life that is fliply negated when, told what time it is, the fulminating diva rushes off to make her curtain. 

I did mention a brother, and he is played to a turn by Reg Rogers. There is nothing at all derivative about his recreation of John Barrymore's comic turn in The Twentieth Century. It is all there: the listing, the drooping, the drawling, the howling, the hyperbolic invective, the slangy gratitude — and, most of all, the voice that, once it starts, never stops. (I've never found legato anywhere near as hilarious as it is Mr Rogers's mouth.) That Tony's role in the proceedings is catalytic rather than dramatic hardly diminishes the spectacular nature of Mr Rogers's performance: he is an entire kick line, working from a trapeze.

I was not taken with the production's somewhat fusty look. John Lee Beatty's set seemed busy but pinched, "theatrical" but not grand. Doubtless it's the authentic look of a thespian retreat from the Twenties, and it certainly conveyed the chaos of life chez Cavendish. But it was also somewhat wearying. Also authentic but uncomfortable were one or two of Catherine Zuber's dresses. The faded charms of Sunset Boulevard were at odds with the show's smart brio. But these are quibbles; I'd see the show again tomorrow if I could. (November 2009)

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