New York City Theater
"The Royal Family"
Genuine stars have a tendency to take over, consciously or not. Take Rosemary Harris who lights the galaxy in the current revival of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s 1927 “The Royal Family.” Now playing family doyenne Fanny Cavendish, she played Fanny’s daughter, Julie, in a 1975 revival. Fortunately, Julie is now in the hands of the wonderfully wry Jan Maxwell, but the production isn’t as memorable as it was when Harris was Julie and Weston’s Eva Le Gallienne was Fanny.
Doug Hughes’ direction, starting slowly, eventually matches the heightened state of theatrics in which this family functions. Not all the acting is consistent, though, with exceptions such as David Greenspan’s marvelously effete butler.
Still, this is an urbane, witty valentine to theater. At its core is the conflict between showbiz’s artificial bright lights and society’s dull bean-counters. Both the once-married Julie and her daughter Gwen must choose between the theater and alliances with rich, dependable businessmen. (“I can give you the names of actors and actresses of 300 years ago,” says Gwen to her financier fiancé. “Name me two 17th-century stockbrokers.”)
The plot, which includes a wild concoction about matinee idol Tony (the John Barrymore character) who’s fleeing a rejected lover, is an excuse for a loving tribute to theatrical flamboyance and magic. As Tony, Reg Rogers is the perfect ham. Whether running about in an enormous fur coat, fencing as if he were Errol Flynn or pretending to be a bellboy, Rogers jumps for joy.
As Julie, Maxwell makes everything an act. (“Am I center?” she asks before reading a letter.) Whether throwing herself hysterically to the floor (but making sure she gets to the theater on time) or striking the correct pose to entice a would-be husband, Julie manufactures emotions while showing genuine feeling for her family and Maxwell plays all the strings with dexterity.
As Fanny, the irreplaceable Harris sweeps her words from orchestra to second balcony while eyeing all the folks along the way. In her hands and voice, “get out” is a symphony, “quaint” is a three-part novel. She ought to be bronzed.
David A. Rosenberg
Oct. 18, 2009