Feature

Stage: The Royal Family

George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s 1927 spoof of Lionel, John, Ethel, and the rest of the Barrymore clan retains its original charm.

Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
New York
(800) 432-7250

***

Much has changed on Broadway since the Barrymores were “kings and queens of the theatrical world,” said John Simon in Bloomberg.com. Yet The Royal Family—George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s 1927 spoof of Lionel, John, Ethel, and the rest of the acting clan—retains its original charm. Like peacocks strutting in a cage, the members of a very Barrymore-like family called the Cavendishes parade their quirks within the confines of their baroque New York apartment. Paragons of “diction, bearing, and aura,” these celebrities of a bygone era bear little resemblance to today’s stars. But their “madly theatrical lives” still prove fascinating.

Like much of Kaufman’s work, The Royal Family relies on a series of “piled-up antics to keep the action rolling,” said Michael Feingold in The Village Voice. Phones ring. Doors slam. Strange visitors come and go, while the family members grandstand amid the din, talking above one another in an attempt to force their personal dramas to center stage. Tony, the John Barrymore figure, throws “hotheaded” tantrums, lamenting his plight as a mobbed celebrity whose every move is tracked by the tabloids. Julie, based on the era’s reigning stage diva, Ethel, dreams of escaping the rigorous demands of her career and running off with her millionaire boyfriend. Fanny, the family matriarch, rages wittily against audiences’ “changing tastes.”

Watching this “temperamental clan of actors balance personal affairs with chaotic stage lives” is hilarious, said David Sheward in The Hollywood Reporter. Director Doug Hughes “commands his thespian troops with the precision of a military strategist,” and they respond by executing the play’s gags and one-liners with verve. Rosemary Harris, who famously played Julie in a 1975 Broadway staging, “is just as glowing” in the role of Fanny. Her performance “radiates the joy of acting.” Jan Maxwell’s magnificent take on Julie combines laugh-out-loud “comic desperation” with a “refined sense of poise.” And Reg Rogers’ Tony “is every inch the self-indulgent, charismatic matinee idol.” Combined, they make “one regal and enjoyable Royal Family.

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