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The Royal Family

Rosemary Harris and Jan Maxwell lead a superb cast in Manhattan Theatre Club's sparkling revival of Kaufman and Ferber's valentine to the theater. logo
Jan Maxwell, Kelli Barrett, and Rosemary Harris
in The Royal Family
(© Joan Marcus)
The first thing seen when the maroon curtain rises grandly on the Manhattan Theatre Club's sparkling revival of the George S. Kaufman-Edna Ferber comedy warhorse The Royal Family, now at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, is John Lee Beatty's re-creation of an East-Fifties Manhattan mansion, perhaps the finest interior the architecturally savvy designer has ever created.

It's so magnificent, in fact, that were Doug Hughes' production less accomplished than it is, audiences would leave the auditorium humming Beatty's sumptuous set instead of singing the praises of a 1927 play cynics might label old-fashioned -- but others will characterize as the kind they don't write any more. More's the pity that they don't, considering the attention Kaufman and Ferber pay to the delights that craft alone can impart.

A take-off on -- and valentine to -- the Barrymore family, the three-act play covers a year in the life of the narcissistic Cavendish clan as they question their dedication to their art. Their devotion to acting, however, is never in doubt, even as the temperamental Julie (Jan Maxwell) and lively daughter Gwen (Kelli Barrett) contemplate marriage to what Variety long ago labeled non-pros. Also toying with quitting the profession -- but not meaning a word of it -- is Julie's movie-star handsome brother, Tony (Reg Rogers), whose latest Hollywood dalliance has gotten him in publicized hot water.

The paradox underlying the authors' high-velocity narrative is that, self-centered as each of them is, they not only live under one roof, but, beneath the histrionic friction, they like each other. By the time the curtain falls, the implied moral lesson is that the family that plays together -- in the show-biz sense -- stays together.

Under Hughes' inspired direction, the cast is just-about perfect. Rosemary Harris (who played the role of Julie in the 1975 Broadway production) is a combination of maternal concern and girlish maturity as matriarch Fanny. Maxwell, in an extravagantly over-the-top and Tony Award-worthy performance, leaves no stop unpulled as an actress with many burdens to bear, not the least of which is getting to the theater promptly eight times a week. Rogers handles his crisp lines as if they were figurative swordplay and executes the onstage swordplay just as adroitly, while Barrett is breezy as Gwen.

In the supporting roles, John Glover as Fanny's brother, hammy actor Herbert Dean, Ana Gasteyer as his crass wife Kitty, Larry Pine as Gilbert Marshall, a well-meaning but unexciting expatriate rancher long in love with Julie, Tony Roberts as devoted manager Oscar Wolfe, David Greenspan as a cheerful butler, and Caroline Stefanie Clay as a jovial maid all shine as well.

Indeed, this production of The Royal Family proves that, while the play may be the thing, so is the irrepressible playing of it.


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