"Am I Center…?"

By the time the curtain came down on the Manhattan Theatre Club revival of The Royal Family, I just wanted to be member of the Cavendish family, or to work for them (this is one of those plays where the staff is an extension of the nuclear). No matter how egocentric or childish these actors behave, there is never a shortness of heart. Even the most exasperating family member is accepted and embraced as part of this circle that is based in love, family and of course, the traditions of the theatre.

This is most evident toward the end of the play, when the entire family is gathered around looking at plans for a brand new play. There is excitement about the idea of putting on a new show, what it will look like, what it could be. It’s an excitement so rich you understand how this family functions. However, while they are busy bonding over their art, two suitors are shown as clear outsiders who stand around aimlessly and stand out like sore thumbs. They don’t understand the marriage between actor and craft, and they never will. The play simultaneously lampoons and celebrates what makes theatre the unique world it is.

I was incredibly optimistic about The Royal Family, a comedy-drama about a celebrated acting family written by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. Now, I had never read nor seen the play before. All I knew was its history. It premiered on Broadway in 1927, where it was a big success with audiences who would readily make the satiric connections with the Barrymore family. The Barrymores themselves had varying reactions. John went backstage to congratulate Fredric March on his performance in a Los Angeles production. Lionel declined to comment, while Ethel unsuccessfully sued. That didn’t quell the popularity of the show. It premiered in London as Theatre Royal, so as not to draw parallels with the British royalty, with Laurence Olivier. It was made into the film The Royal Family of Broadway in 1930, with March recreating his stage triumph as Tony Cavendish (based on John) to the tune of an Oscar nomination. It’s probably best known to today’s audiences by its exceptionally well-received 1975 Broadway revival. Ellis Rabb won a Tony for his direction (and quickly assumed the role of Tony) and it starred Rosemary Harris and Eva Le Gallienne as daughter and matriarch of the eccentric stage dynasty.

Reflecting one of the play’s themes, the torch has passed. Harris is again starring on Broadway in The Royal Family, except this time she is stepping into the role of Fanny Cavendish, the matriarch. Jan Maxwell, one of Broadway’s greatest treasures is playing her daughter Julie. They are joined by Tony Roberts, Reg Rogers, Larry Pine, John Glover, Ana Gasteyer, Kelli Barrett in one of the loveliest revivals you’re likely to see this year.

The MTC has spared no expense in making this revival a feast for the eyes and ears. When the curtain rose on John Lee Beatty’s lavish unit set, a two-tier upscale Manhattan living room ripe with ornate period decor, the audience first gasped, then broke into enthusiastic applause. Complementing the scenery are the sumptuous costumes designed by multiple Tony-winner Catherine Zuber. The incidental music was supplied by Maury Yeston.

The show isn’t just a display of visual wonderment. Director Doug Hughes has done incredibly well by the script, finding a way to stage an 82 year old play without making it feel dated. The play does run three acts, and gets bogged down in the first act with exposition. However, don’t let that deter you – the second and third acts contain the best and most impressionable moments of the evening and are dominated by Ms. Harris and Ms. Maxwell.

I first saw Maxwell in the woefully short-lived Coram Boy (which I saw twice) and have been an ardent fan ever since. She doesn’t fail here, scoring magnificently as the middle-aged stage star of the family, upon whom much of the familial responsibility rests. She has a second shot at love with a man that got away many years ago because of the emphasis on her career, and seriously considers giving it all up for him. But a star through and through, Julie knows how to make an entrance and at one point while being melodramatic interrupts herself to ask “Am I center…?” before carrying on.

A highlight of the theatre season is watching Julie become unhinged late in the second act. It is here that Maxwell delivers the most brilliantly executed comic monologue I have ever seen in my life. It’s impossible for anyone to successfully describe it in print, but you will never forget the image of Maxwell face-planted against the lip of the Friedman stage. I’ve never seen a comic moment genuinely stop a show like it does here. All I know is that I was still awestruck when the lights came up at second intermission several minutes later.

The other indelible moment belongs to Harris, who is the matriarch who has been kept from performing due to illness. Throughout the play she patiently observes the family around her, accepts their idiosyncrasies as normal, and gets to deliver some choice Kaufman zingers. But Fanny is the heart of the play. It is her apartment in which everyone gathers and where the dramas and comedies of this family are acted out for one another. Fanny herself is something of a calming, elegant contrast to the insanity around her. Aching for the unlikely chance to return to the stage, Harris dominates the third act with an eleven o’clock moment that will haunt and move you from here to eternity. The final tableau is a most striking and affecting stage visual that will stay with you long after you’ve left the theatre.

While there are many other 82 year old plays that we are likely to never see again, this one works and holds up rather well, dated references considered. Most of that is due to its delicious depiction of actors and the playwrights’ sly satiric portrait of how they live. The play may never again get the laughs it got in 1927 when audiences was more readily aware of the Barrymores and their status within the New York theatre community. But it comes back to Hughes who imbues the entire production with class and elegance in its staging and characterization. However, underneath the slick superficial surface of show-biz is a loving family that is drawn together by its unique association with acting. As Gwen weighs giving up acting for marriage and family, Fanny drolly proclaims, “Marriage isn’t a career, it’s an incident.” Fanny and Julie then speak so eloquently of the privilege to do what they do that you begin to question your own career choice.

There has been a lot of press about Tony Roberts falling ill onstage during last Sunday’s matinee, but he was back onstage in time for Thursday night’s opening. He provides a voice of reason for the entire family as their long time manager. Reg Rogers is a favorite as the outrageous Tony, always on the run for drinking too much and womanizing. His eccentricity and larger than life personality are complemented by quieter moments where he’s with his mother and you get a glimpse at the loving child underneath all the trappings. The entire ensemble works very well with one another. Gasteyer, if a bit monotone, is perfectly gauche as Kitty. Glover’s character is trying to hang onto the last shreds of his dignity, while descending the show business ladder. Even the household staff have fully formed, interesting characters in spite of their brief stage time.

The production at the Friedman is such a tremendous hit that it’s already extended its limited engagement, but the revival is closing on November 29. You can bet that I will be going back again.