When it was first produced, 90 long years ago, George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber‘s The Royal Family had a different sort of meaning than now. Audiences back then were knowledgeable about, and were devotees of, theatrical dynasties – the Barrymores, Lunt & Fontaine, Cronyn & Tandy. Theater had a presence in the culture than it no longer enjoys (especially for non-New Yorkers, i.e., most of us). $500 per seat on Broadway. Good Lord.
So: does The Royal Family still work in 2017, in the age of the Internet, of DVDs and video streaming?
The Guthrie is betting that it does. And certainly their show crackles and zips and zings, with laudable effervescence and zest. The plot, such as is, revolves around the Cavendish theatrical dynasty, and the efforts of producers to persuade them to appear in various plays; of a suitor who wants to persuade the Cavendish ingenue (Gwen) to marry; and of the family and hangers-on who want to convince the family matriarch, Fanny, not to undergo the physical rigors of a tour.
Much of The Royal Family is static and past tense – characters talking about stuff that has already happened – but the Guthrie gives the material an oomph and an energized glibness that works. Although after two and half hours (the play surpasses three hours), I began stealing glances at my watch.
There are some terrific performances. Too many to mention. Still I have single out Bill McCallum as the coarse-but-charming Herbert; Angela Timberman evokes giggles as his mate (ex-mate?) Kitty. With her goofy Baby Jane frock. Mo Perry and Charles Hubbell play the servant characters Della and Joe with dignity and reserve, letting the madness of the Cavendishes swirl around them. Shawn Hamilton, as the producer/theater owner Oscar, delights with his sly manipulative grin.
Matthew Saldívar plays Tony (putatively inspired by John Barrymore) with Groucho-like vigor, prowling the stage, sprinting madly, trying on weird costumes, leaping up and down the staircase. Part of me enjoyed his work and part of me wanted to smash a skull (the set is filled with them) over his head. “Grow up!” Unquestionably, though, he dominates every scene he’s in.
Elizabeth Franz plays Fanny with quiet aplomb. One fully understands why the rest of the clan treats her with such respect.
But the younger Cavendishes – played by Victoria Janicki and Michelle O’Neill – don’t convince as super-successful stage actors. They are too brittle, too self-centered, too shrill. One wants… theatricality, and size.
Another problem is director Rachel Chavkin’s half-hearted (IMO) efforts to give the production postmodern significance, by manipulating the lights, bringing in banks of fresnels, flying up the walls of the set, getting rid of the gaudy knick-knacks, periodically switching on the Royal Family sign. I mostly found all this distracting.
Still, as is the rule at the flying G, The Royal Family is a feast for the eyes. Marte Johanne Ehhougen (sets), Brenda Abbandandolo (costumes), Bradley King (lights), et al have done marvelous work.
The length of this show makes it a hard recommendation. Still, The Royal Family is by no means terrible. So… recommended with reservations.
John Olive is a widely produced and award-winning playwright. His book, Tell Me A Story In The Dark, about the magic of bedtime stories, has been published. His The Sisters Eight will be presented at First Stage Milwaukee. His screenplays, A Slaying Song Tonight and The Deflowering Of Father Trimleigh are under option. Please visit his informational website.