Friday, October 9, 2009

The Royal Family


By George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. Directed by Doug Hughes. Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. (CLOSED)

Does this revival of Kaufman and Ferber's 1927 theatrical satire still hold up in 2009? Though few critics answer that question with a resounding yes, most have a reasonably good time with the show, along a continuum that ranges from giddy time-traveling ecstasy to shruggy coulda-been-worse contentment. Most critics particularly lift up Rosemary Harris' turn as the play's serene thespian matriarch and Jan Maxwell's all-stops-out performance as the family's equivocating diva, with scattered plaudits for Reg Rogers' John Barrymore-esque ham and other supporting turns (including the recovered-from-a-collapse Tony Roberts). Many critics ding either the play or director Doug Hughes for a variety of infractions, from pacing problems to lack of ensemble cohesion, but all are duly impressed by John Lee Beatty's sumptuous set. If there's a consensus here, it would be roughly that if MTC must do revivals (and apparently they must), they're basically on the right track here. A+
(Eugene Paul) An old fashioned, hugely delicious dessert of a play concocted from sour lemons betokening upstart Hollywood, richest fruitcake representing Barrymore family antics and gobs and gobs of sentimental Broadway frosting with sprinkles of every hue spun in the dazzling to dotty costumes created by Catherine Zuber. Director Doug Hughes ordered a swooningly evocative set of positively calculated excess in which to deploy his forces and designer John Lee Beatty goes full tilt...Director Hughes has a delight of a cast, from starring to walk-on and strums them to every laugh, every tear. Under the utter, frothy nonsense whipped up by Kaufman and Ferber is that stickiest of glue: heart.

Associated Press A
(Michael Kuchwara) Effervescent...Graced with a terrific collection of actors who rise to the heightened flamboyance needed to carry out these highly theatrical impersonations. The cast is headed by the ever-lovely Rosemary Harris, portraying Fanny Cavendish, the grande dame of this exotic troupe...Hughes never lets any of the actors descend into cartoons, which makes the play's surprisingly emotional ending all the more poignant - especially after all the frivolous mayhem that has preceded it. That delightful turbulence is played out on designer John Lee Beatty's baronial set, a lavish duplex Manhattan apartment that probably could only exist in the theatre. Don't tell the Cavendish clan. For them, on stage is the only life that's real.

Theatermania A
(David Finkle) Sparkling...John Lee Beatty's re-creation of an East-Fifties Manhattan mansion [is] 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...Under Hughes' inspired direction, the cast is just-about perfect...Indeed, this production of The Royal Family proves that, while the play may be the thing, so is the irrepressible playing of it.

Newsday A
(Linda Winer) There are many pleasures in Doug Hughes' sumptuous joy of an old-fashoned revival...[Director] Hughes...clearly knows that comedy is serious business. For all the gorgeous bustle of the luxurious 16-member cast, John Lee Beatty's period-luxe set and Catherine Zuber's impeccable costumes, this production both loves the life-upon-the-wicked-stage romance of the theater and knows the demands of its insularity...The Manhattan Theatre Club has had its ups and downs in its Broadway venue. This one is up.

Time Out NY A
(Adam Feldman) In less nimble hands than Doug Hughes’s, a revival of this 1928 poison-paean letter to the theater might have seemed stodgy. Instead, Manhattan Theatre Club offers a splendid spread of old-fashioned Broadway pleasures, from John Lee Beatty’s sumptuously overstuffed set to the luxurious casting of minor roles. (David Greenspan is the butler!) The main characters, the Cavendish family, are a Barrymore-or-less clan of self-dramatizing master thespians, so Kaufman and Ferber get to have it both ways: These people can be at once outrageously stagy and utterly true to themselves...The Royal Family proves that, with the right setting and polish, these old gems can still gleam.

Backstage A
(David Sheward) A rousing revival...under Doug Hughes' crack staging, which appears frenetic at first, but by the final curtain you'll realize that Hughes commands his thespian troops with the precision of a military strategist...Now playing the matriarch Fanny, Harris is just as glowing and youthful as she was then. She radiates the joy of acting, which animates this feisty, lovable, indomitable figure. In this production, she gracefully cedes the spotlight to Jan Maxwell, who delivers a magnificent performance as Julie...When the servants are just as winning as the leads, that tells you this is one regal and enjoyable "Royal Family."

Lighting & Sound America A
(David Barbour) In assembling his cast for The Royal Family, the director, Doug Hughes, has helped himself to some of the crown jewels of the American theatre. First among them, of course, is Rosemary Harris...For years, I've told people that Rosemary Harris is the greatest actress of my theatregoing time, and I see no need to revise that opinion now. Harris has a nearly ideal partner in Jan Maxwell as Julie...Maxwell is one of the most gifted high-comedy technicians working in the theatre today, and she makes Julie into a most beguiling combination of grand gestures and hard common sense...Together, Harris and Maxwell constitute the most entrancing mother-daughter act in town. Under the perfectly timed direction of Hughes, who knows exactly how to handle this clockwork charmer from George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, a blue-chip cast runs, jumps, and bounces around the multiple levels of John Lee Beatty's stunning set...There have been a few complaints about Manhattan Theatre Club's propensity for staging war horses in its Broadway venue -- but how many companies can present a classic American comedy in a first-class production like this?

On Off Broadway A
(Matt Windman) As soon as the red curtain rises on its upscale two-story living room set, which is overcrowded with show posters, paintings of relatives, armor and flowers, you feel immediately transported into the golden age of Broadway comedy. Rosemary Harris is perfectly cast as the aging, regal matriarch Fanny, who supposedly hasn't missed a performance in 63 years, bursting with life in spite of her declining health. Every other member of the Cavendish character is childish, egotistical and insecure, creating a melodious cacophony of overacting. Jan Maxwell, who plays Fanny's daughter Julie, triumphs in a breakdown scene where she finally responds to pressure from the family by falling to the floor and renouncing the theater, only to panic when she realizes that she is about to miss her evening performance...There's more to "The Royal Family" than just exaggerated comedy. It accurately depicts a period of transition for the American theater, just before the cinema gained power. Luckily, Doug Hughes' production has a firm hold on both the play's humor and heart.

USA Today A-
(Elysa Gardner) The play premiered on Broadway in 1927 and has gathered a few mothballs since. Still, the central relationship between a grand old dame of the stage and the glamorous, much put-upon daughter following in her footsteps is a fine showcase for two marvelous actresses featured here...Julie is played by Jan Maxwell, whose elegant, high-cheekboned beauty and comic dexterity suit the part perfectly. a good vehicle for Maxwell's emotional intelligence and capacity for tenderness. It's impossible to imagine an actress who would be more credible or likable, or funnier, as this harried working mom who just happens to be a celebrated thespian. Harris similarly makes us laugh and breaks our hearts as Fanny, a life-long trouper determined not to let age or illness keep her out of the spotlight...Under Dough Hughes' sprightly direction, the other ensemble members all perform gamely, if less consistently.

Village Voice A-
(Michael Feingold) Half spoof of and half tribute to the Barrymores, The Royal Family presents theater artists as a race apart—people who fascinate America but who have no assured position in it. Whenever the play isn't about art, it's about money: the "Cavendish" clan's free-spending habits, their attraction to plays that bring more prestige than box-office success...Both emotional scenes and farcical interludes are built to divert. Writing for a commercial theater, Kaufman and Ferber never dug deep. But they built for authenticity, and their diversion captures genuine feelings, of which Hughes's generally excellent cast makes the most...The overall effect is festive.

Variety B+
(David Rooney) The rhythms of Doug Hughes' production are too uneven to make all its rewards equal, but George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's 1927 comedy about a New York stage dynasty retains plenty of charm for theater lovers. And while the ensemble work could be tighter, its lead performers rise to the occasion in sparkling turns...Comedy has not been the director's chosen form in his major New York credits, and a vehicle like this one -- whose acerbic witticisms have to contend with a certain creakiness and more whimsical atmosphere than narrative substance -- may not have been the best place to make the switch. Too often, the play falls back on that dated device of having scenes dissolve into chaos and squabbling, with everyone shouting over one another...But plot is secondary to characterizations here, and as the actors steadily bring definition to their roles, the production does find a workable comic footing, somewhere between the first and second of its three acts...Kaufman and Ferber's play is both dusty and thin, but what keeps it entertaining is its unambiguous love for the theater.

Entertainment Weekly B+
(Thom Geier) A surprisingly limber three-act send-up of the storied Barrymore clan of actors...As you might guess, the members of this family have a flare for the dramatic — to mostly hilarious effect...Yes, The Royal Family is old-fashioned. And yes, it's a bit windy at nearly three hours. But the vanity of actors and the ravenousness of the tabloid press remain remarkably unchanged since the '20s. Kaufman and Ferber's dialogue is still bitingly funny, and Maxwell's center-stage meltdown at the end of the second act is a priceless showstopper. This show is as sturdily constructed as John Lee Beatty's impressively ornate two-level set, which recreates the Cavendishes' luxe Park Avenue apartment.

DC Theatre Scene B+
(Richard Seff) This is a rich plum cake of a play...In three acts, in two and half hours, a winter’s stew of a plot keeps the momentum going as we move from a rainy weekend to a day one year later...Within a matter of minutes we’ve met 9 or 10 characters and we know this is not going to be a “kitchen sink drama” or a play about an “angry young man”. No, they are years away, so we can sit back and marvel at the dexterity of the writers, the comedic gift of the topnotch cast and Doug Hughes’ (the director) sure hand at controlling the chaos and getting the laughs.

The New York Times B
(Ben Brantley) Jan Maxwell and Rosemary Harris are giving the kinds of performances that turn agnostics into true believers. Ms. Harris is Fanny Cavendish, the matriarch of an acting dynasty, and Ms. Maxwell is her daughter, Julie, the reigning goddess of Broadway. And when, in the play’s second act, this mother and daughter start to preach the family gospel to an apostate in their midst, something close to a miracle occurs. A production that up to that point has seemed merely a handsome, stilted revival of a dated suffused with the radiance of the pure, inexhaustible love of an ancient craft...What is happening is a blurring of illusion and bone-deep conviction that is peculiar to live theater, as two actresses playing actresses spin hokum into moonlight, just as their characters are said to do...As staged by Mr. Hughes...this “Royal Family” takes a while to find its natural rhythm and even then doesn’t always hold on to it. Not all the cast members seem equally at home in John Lee Beatty’s lush rendering of the Cavendish family’s two-tiered apartment.

Bloomberg News B
(John Simon) Sparkles a little less today, [but] still makes for a diverting evening...These larger-than-life people mattered because Broadway stars mattered in a way they no longer do. Cultural icons come and go. The theater itself has become less prominent with the coming of talkies and television, and so a less recognizable target of persiflage...Doug Hughes’s direction gets the tempo, chaos and outrageousness of those madly theatrical lives right; John Lee Beatty’s two-tiered set is superb; Catherine Zuber’s costumes are delightfully true to period and Kenneth Posner’s lighting is as accomplished as can be. Yet something is missing. Admirable actress as Jan Maxwell is, and racily as she enacts the changing moods and tergiversations between being the era’s leading diva and yielding to the call of romance and marriage, she never struck me as larger than life. As the commanding matriarch of the Cavendishes, we get the always charming Rosemary Harris, whose acting radiates grace and warmth, but who is too bland as Fanny...Add to this that despite some funny bits, Kaufman had not yet reached the height of his comic gifts. So we get rather more competence than magnificence.

The Daily News B
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Comedies get old. Funny is evergreen. Presented as evidence, "The Royal Family." At the ripe old age of 82, it remains an amusing look at the lunacies of the theater and the neurotics in it - that is, actors. Manhattan Theatre Club's new production of the vintage play is handsome, sturdy and diverting, even if it doesn't bring the gale-force guffaws you want.

(David Cote) A pleasant enough trip in the time machine. Doug Hughes directs this handsome and comfortable revival, which could use a bit more screwball verve. Luckily, antic insanity is supplied by the scenery gobbling, hilariously emphatic Reg Rogers in the flashy role of Tony Cavendish, hot-tempered son of Fanny Cavendish. Fanny is the head of the theatrical Cavendish acting dynasty, and she's played by the luminous and tart-tongued Rosemary Harris...Maxwell has several fine moments of dry delivery and ennui-filled physical comedy, but too often soft-pedals the humor and glamour. That's not a problem for Rogers, who bounds about declaiming his lines, three musketeers in one body. Among the tastier supporting turns are John Glover as a vain has-been actor-uncle, Anna Gasteyer as his vulgar wife Kitty, and the inimitable David Greenspan as a saucy servant...Revivals are always a tricky balance between archeology and restoration, and "The Royal Family" scores above average. It's a tasteful banquet of nostalgia served up with class, with a horde of worthy actors still struggling to get on the same page.

New York Post B-
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) When the show improves after the first intermission, you realize that Hughes shouldn't bear the sole blame for its unpromising start: The [first] act is one long exposition as George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber merely introduce their dozen or so characters...Gwen's declaration that she's going to marry a stockbroker "and be a regular person!" is the key to much of the play's humor. It's always clear that the authors side with the artists, who represent freedom and fun, but also passion and dedication. Unfortunately, for the most part, the zaniness never takes flight. Hughes is a sensitive director, good at unearthing hidden depths, but that's not necessarily what's needed in a Kaufman comedy. While Harris is a master of the understated aside, the most enjoyable performances tellingly are the most mannered, over-the-top ones. As arch manservant Jo, David Greenspan milks the most innocuous lines (he draws titters from just "hot dog"). Reg Rogers goes all-out in his portrayal of Julie's brother Tony, a flamboyant maverick with an indefinable accent. If the whole show had followed suit, we would have been in business. The surprisingly bittersweet ending is handled with a nice mix of melancholy and levity. But the change of tone would have been even more effective if what preceded it had been funny instead of funny-ish.

Talkin' Broadway B-
(Matthew Murray) Like peering into a fantasy world where the rules of contemporary logic simply do not apply. And with all but two exceptions in the new Manhattan Theatre Club production of the play at the Biltmore, the window between our world and theirs is far dustier than it should be. Those two diversions in Doug Hughes’s fitfully amusing rendition of the play are even ones you’ve likely heard of: Ethel and John Barrymore. Okay, technically they’re named Julie and Tony Cavendish...Hughes has staged the show well, with the proper balance of frantic and defeated energy to summon a home as unpredictably chaotic as backstage during a flop...But the other Cavendishes and their cohorts are considerably more down to Earth than Julie and Tony, to their detriment as well as the play’s.

Wall Street Journal C+
(Terry Teachout) It still has its amusing moments, but the element of satire (underlined by the fact that Reg Rogers, who plays Tony Cavendish, is made up to look like John Barrymore) is now dated past the point of easy recognition, and the humor dries up abruptly and unpleasingly when the plot takes a bathetic turn in the last act. Noël Coward knew better than to get soppy in "Hay Fever," the classic 1924 backstage farce on which "The Royal Family" is rather too obviously based, and I kept wishing that I were seeing that play instead of this one. Doug Hughes, the director, appears to have encouraged his cast to try too hard, with results that not infrequently suggest a stageful of nail-driving carpenters. Fortunately, Rosemary Harris and Jan Maxwell manage to give neatly turned performances—Ms. Harris is stately and sardonic, Ms. Maxwell fey and winsome—that are just about worth the price of admission.

The New Yorker D+
This 1927 chestnut about the histrionic Barrymore clan, written by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman, has a good set, an expert cast (with bravura performances by Jan Maxwell and Reg Rogers), and a firm directorial hand (Doug Hughes). What it lacks is any reason for revival: except for the elegance of its construction—it’s a fun machine that delivers very little real fun—the play has nothing to tell us about actors or psychology or even the society these personas once ravished. The experience is like a Mercedes racing its engine in neutral: a lot of noise but no traction. A+ 14; Associated Press A 13; Theatermania A 13; Newsday A 13; TONY A 13; Backstage A 13; LS&A a 13; On Off Broadway A 13; USA Today A- 12; VV A- 12; Variety B+ 11; Entertainment Weekly B+ 11; DCTS B+ 11; The New York Times B 10; Bloomberg News B 10; The Daily News B 10; NY1 B 10; New York Post B- 9; Talkin' Broadway B- 9; Wall Street Journal C+ 8; NYer D+ 5; TOTAL: 233/21=11.1 (B+)

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