Wednesday, November 4, 2009

All right, all right, I’ll say it: “The Royal Family” Rules!

Why should one see an 82-year-old play on Broadway? 15 Reasons:

  1. Rosemary Harris. Unlike my friend “M,” I was not enjoying the double déjà vu pleasure of seeing Rosemary Harris as the Matriarch of the piece, Fannie Cavendish, after having seen her as leading lady Julie Cavendish in the mid-1970s revival. Nevertheless, seeing Rosemary Harris do anything means unalloyed joy. Seeing her as the Grand Dame of the Royal Family of the NY Theatre is to die for. She is grace, she is humor, she is wit, she is style, she is passion. She is fluid, she is life. She is why some of us wanted the theatre to be our lives.
  2. Tony Roberts. As Oscar Wolfe, the family’s manager, Roberts takes the stage discreetly and quietly. He is the calm at the center of the chaos that is the Cavendish family. Oscar is the non-actor in the maelstrom, and Roberts steps back and underplays this deviously caring role beautifully.
  3. Jan Maxwell. Take a deep breath and watch her fly. As Julie Cavendish, Jan Maxwell holds her own with Rosemary Harris. However generous Ms. Harris may be – and she is extremely so – this is no easy feat. Playing the role Harris played over 30 years ago may be daunting to lesser mortals, but Maxwell does it with style and grace. She poses, she soothes, she seethes, she’s the sane one in a madhouse, and she’s utterly mad. Her voice and diction are clear as a bell throughout the evening. She’s delightful and powerful, driving the play’s storyline from start to finish.
  4. John Glover. As the impoverished, perhaps not has-been but never-was brother of Fannie, Herbert Dean, Glover is a bundle of nerves unable to get work for himself or his wife. He ages handsomely but not gracefully, unwilling to let go of his leading man status. Needy and obvious, Dean’s annoying -- and yet, and yet, he’s a member of the family, and he adores them all. The Royal Family becomes our family, and the wayward uncle is part of it.
  5. Reg Rogers does a mean John Barrymore. He embodies the maddest of the Cavendishes, Fannie’s son Tony. Rogers’ Tony is never still, he fences, he leaps, he dances, he whirls. He’s utterly delightful (and put me pleasantly in mind of an old Star Trek “villain,” the Squire of Gothos a.k.a. “General Trelane, Retired” as played by William Campbell). Rogers is physically marvelous, bursting with energy and technical prowess, and a big heart; but a little more elocution would be welcome.
  6. Larry Pine. As Gilbert Marshall, the long lost love of leading lady Julie Cavendish, Larry Pine discreetly shines as the businessman who went off and made a massive fortune in South America when Julie turned him down 20 years before. He comes back just when Julie desperately needs his personification of solid, steady, and sane, and therefore quite disrupts royal family life. Pine is refreshingly normal, then rather frighteningly so. The man’s a pro at aplomb.
  7. Kelli Barrett. The younger generation, Julie’s daughter Gwen Cavendish, is an exuberant, energetic, melodramatic ‘ingénue’ who can hold her own opposite the powerhouses on the stage. She’s sweet, fretful, spoiled. Barrett’s Gwen has the grace of her grandmother and the strength of her mother, and her very own gumption. Barrett has power. She’s someone to watch.
  8. David Greenspan. What a delight he is playing “Jo,” the family retainer/butler/majordomo/whatever-the-family-needs-him-to-be. He’s quiet, witty, the perfect foil to the staid maid and the wild family. His voice penetrates the madness just when it is needed.
  9. Freddy Arsenault. Arsenault makes a sweet Broadway debut as Gwen’s beau Perry, the society boy/stockbroker, as opposite to the Royal Family as he can be. The role doesn’t make an impact, but his on the mark performance shows he’s got the stuff.
  10. Ana Gasteyer. It’s been difficult to make up my mind about Ana’s Kitty Dean, Herbert’s wife. She has hilarious moments, and all in all I’d say she did a marvelous job of playing the dislikeable and disliked character. In a family of great actors with cultured voices and styles, she’s an outsider. The one who married in and cannot act although she thinks she can. She’s a sad creature really – but Ms. Gasteyer’s tones are so sharp we flinch to hear her speak. Which makes me think that maybe, just maybe, she was quite brilliant.
  11. John Lee Beatty. Of course the set is his and perfect and magnificent, and of course
  12. Catherine Zuber’s costume design works perfectly in the space.
  13. Doug Hughes directed with love, reverence, joy, controlled abandon. A fine piece of work with staging more than pleasing to the eye, and reminiscent of the black-and-white comedies I loved.
  14. Let us not forget the playwrights: George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber -- sparkling wit, brilliant characters, the fastest-paced 3 hours you could wish. Just say the family names out loud and embrace them: Tony Cavendish, Julie Cavendish, Fannie Cavendish, Gwen Cavendish, and the late patriarch whose portrait oversees all in the living room, Aubrey Cavendish. Cheers to the brilliant playwrights! “The Royal Family” makes one yearn for more – the madcap of “Stage Door” (film version, please!), the culture clash of “Dinner at Eight” and “You Can’t Take It With You,” one of Kaufman’s collaborations with Moss Hart. Ah, the days of large casts – so much better than helicopters.
  15. And finally, Panache.

A marvelous piece of work at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Go.

~ Molly Matera, signing off. I must go watch the Yankee/Phillies game now.

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