October 31, 2009

Renewing My Fealty to "The Royal Family"

For some reason I can’t remember, I became obsessed with the Algonquin Round Table during my 20s.  Dorothy Parker—the only woman among the 10 witty journalists and theater folk who lunched, drank and cracked jokes there every day during the 1920s—was, of course, my favorite.  But I read everything I could find about the whole bunch.  Which meant that I kept coming across references to The Royal Family, charter Round Table member George S. Kaufman and frequent guest Edna Ferber’s affectionate satire about the Barrymores, America’s then-leading theatrical dynasty. 

The more I read about it, the more I wanted to see the play. I missed the now-legendary production that opened in 1975 with Rosemary Harris and George Grizzard as siblings Ethel and John Barrymore because I was living in San Francisco at the time. (There's a Broadway Theatre Archives DVD but this show is a love letter to stage life and should be seen there.)  And with three acts, 16 characters, two greyhounds, and a full three-minute fencing scene, this is not the kind of show that gets revived often. So hats off to Manhattan Theatre Club for stepping up and putting on the charming revival of The Royal Family, currently playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

Be warned that the play starts slowly as all the characters are introduced in the first act.  It probably played better when the show first opened in 1927 and the Barrymores were famous enough that theatergoers could pick up on all the inside digs at them.  But stick with it because the plot gets rolling in the second act and there’s lingering resonance in the play’s underlying theme about the choices women have to make between the families they love and the work they love. 

The women in the play’s Cavendish family—matriarch Fanny, daughter Julie and granddaughter Gwen—are all brilliant actresses and each finds her own solution to the problem.  Their men folk—movie-star idol Tony, journeyman actor uncle Bert and various suitors—provide the comic relief. It’s a surprisingly feminist message for the time.

Kaufman and Ferber originally hoped that Ethel Barrymore and her brother John would play the characters based on themselves.  Or at least so says Margot Peters, who wrote “The House of Barrymore,” the gossipy 1990 biography of the clan.  But, according to Peters, Ethel not only turned down the role but tried to sue the playwrights.  (The book is out of print but click here for the Audible.com download).

The suit fizzled when John refused to cooperate but Ethel took some satisfaction from the difficulty the producer Jed Harris had in finding someone dynamic enough to play her.  Harris finally settled on the journeywoman actress Ann Andrews.  “One can admire Ann Andrew’s conscientious, thorough acting of Julie Cavendish—without considering her supremely well cast in the part,” wrote New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson, damning poor Andrews with faint praise in his otherwise rave review. 

Jan Maxwell, who plays Julie in the current production, isn’t as grand as Ethel herself might have been but she fares far better than “conscientious,” particularly in her show-stopping breakdown in the second act. Reg Rogers is appropriately manic as Tony. Tony Roberts is somewhat halting as the family manager Oscar Wolfe but it’s just good to see him following the minor seizure he suffered on stage a few days before the play opened. And Rosemary Harris now makes an elegant and touching Fanny (click here to red a lovely piece she wrote for Broadway Buzz about appearing in both productions). But best for me was John Glover, sleek and amusingly pompous as the under-talented Bert. 

Doug Hughes clearly had a good time directing them all. Alas, I found Catherine Zuber’s costumes a little too obvious—did all the Cavendish women have to wear the royal color purple?  But John Lee Beatty’s lavish set, nicely lit by Kenneth Posner, seems just the kind of flamboyantly theatrical apartment the Cavendishes would call home. The fight director might have called a few more fencing rehearsals but kudos to the dog wrangler and to Maury Yeston for the jaunty incidental music.

Of course it's unlikely that any production could live up to my long-gestating fantasies about The Royal Family. But both my husband K and I ended up having a good time.  I do, wonder, though, what Dorothy Parker might have said about it. 


Esther said...

A few other people have said that it starts slowly but honestly, it didn't feel that way to me. I really enjoyed the play from beginning to end, especially Reg Rogers as Tony. Watching the fencing from my front-row seat was pretty thrilling!
I thought The Royal Family was funny and stylish and I really did get a good sense of what it was like to be part of a family whose business was theater. Definitely an enjoyable way to start out my 2009-2010 Broadway theatergoing season!

Anonymous said...

nice post. thanks.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Thanks for the nice comment. jan

Anonymous said...

i'm new... expectancy to brief approximately more regularly!