I’ve really been looking forward to The Royal Family, more than any other show at the Friedman Theatre since Manhattan Theatre Club reopened it (as the Biltmore) in 2003. It’s a classic by Georgre Kaufman and Edna Ferber, and Kaufman is one of my favorite comic playwrights of all time. Although it feels like director Doug Hughes has let a handful of sure-fire laughs get away from him and his cast, this production is nevertheless as solid and rewarding as anything MTC has done in years.
We are in the lavish Manhattan apartment of the Cavendishes, a famous family of stage stars, not so loosely based on the Barrymores. And what an apartment it is: Scenic designer John Lee Beatty delivers a magnificent jewel box of a set that could only belong to a truly histrionic family of actors.
The Cavendishes exchange scripts like other families trade glances, going through personal problems between matinees and evenings, trying to balance the need for love with the need for the stage, not always with success. The cast is uniformly wonderful, right down to downtown queer marvel David Greenspan in the small but plummy role of Jo the butler.
The wonderfulness starts at the top, with Rosemary Harris glowing as matriarch Fanny, definitely a creature breathing the air of the 19th century elegance and melodrama. Also terrific are John Glover and Ana Gasteyer as Herbert and Kitty Dean, the somewhat less successful relatives. And Reg Rogers is great fun as the clan’s swashbuckling Hollywood prodigal son.
But the play belongs to Julie Cavendish, the biggest star in the family. Comic stalwart Jan Maxwell finally gets to play a part worthy of her talent in a production that’s up to her standard. Maxwell locates both Julie’s deep, almost spiritual love of the stage and her longing for a more leisurely life, and plays them beautifully and effusively. Truly one of the more satisfying nights I’ve spent in a Broadway theatre in a while.
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