Manhattan Theatre Club, in what may be the most stylish comeback on Broadway in years, has chosen to open its season at the Samuel J Friedman Theatre with a slam-bang, finger-snapping, eye-poppingly gorgeous revival of A George S Kaufman farce from 1927 called “The Royal Family”. Co-written back then with Edna Ferber, “Royal Family” is a farce about a family of thespians not unlike the Barrymores cavorting in their Upper East Side townhouse over the course of a year. Three generations of Cavendishes exist under one roof, along with various in-laws, loyal servants, boyfriends, fiancees, managers and all the rest of the standards you can possibly imagine in one very funny farce, written with heavy does of cynicism, love, and sentimentality.
This is a play I’ve always longed to see, ever since I missed my golden opportunity 34 years ago, when the last revival ran on Broadway. Back then, it was directed by the estimable Ellis Rabb, and starred a cast that was the cream of the crop of what Broadway had to offer, including such heavyweights as Eva Le Gallienne, Sam Levene, Mary Louise Wilson, George Grizzard, and the lovely Rosemary Harris. It was filmed for posterity and shown eventually on PBS, and, surprisingly, the dvd is still available today. And yet, I’ve still never seen it. After watching this magnificent revival running currently on Broadway, I think I’m going to get around to it.
One of the many pleasures of this revival is the chance to see the ageless Rosemary Harris playing the mother of the character she etched in that 1975 revival. As Fanny Cavendish, Miss Harris is sheer pleasure to watch-her second act monologue on the passion of performing on stage is priceless and should be mandatory viewing for anyone interested in the craft that is performing live. As her daughter Julie Cavendish, a woman torn between her love of the stage and her need for a stable life, the wonderful Jan Maxwell tears up the stage, especially in HER stunning second act meltdown wherein she demands that her own daughter NOT follow her life example. The audience was screaming hysterically the night I was there, as I’m sure they will for many months to come. As the outlandish, egomaniacal son Tony, based of course on John Barrymore; one of my favorite actors, Reg Rogers, does himself proud with a fine, fine performance. Whether dueling on the staircase or outlining his blueprints for his grand new production of a Passion Play, Rogers nails the vulnerability and the outlandishness of Tony and turns in yet another fine performance. Veteran actor Tony Roberts is simply lovely as the manager of the acting clan, as is another veteran actor, John Glover, as the hammiest of ham actors. Director Doug Hughes, one of our finest directors, has done it again, polishing off a near forgotten gem and making it glisten like polished marble. I think a natural progression would have him sooner or later doing a new production of Kaufman’s “You Can’t Take It With You”, which, when last seen on Broadway, was in a sparkling revival directed by, yup, you guessed it-Ellis Rabb. “The Royal Family” is genuine family entertainment-it celebrates the virtues of living your life on your terms, of being true to yourself and of keeping your family close and cherishing the strength they provide. Bring the kids but don’t be surprised if they tell you afterwards they want to be actors when they grow up. There are certainly worse things they could do.
Around the corner at The Music Box Theatre, a new play by Tracy Letts called “Superior Donuts” is featuring a bravura performance by another show biz veteran who was once known primarily for television and film, but has been demonstrating strong stage chops in the last ten years. That actor is Michael McKean, here playing an aging hippie and former draft evader who takes a young urban kid under his somewhat fragile and underused wing, and ends up learning a whole lot about himself and his beliefs in the process. It’s a sentimental but effective play, but it’s McKean’s time to shine and he does a heckuva job at it. Miss this performance at your peril.