The Royal Family -- Theater Review

Benjamin Walker
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NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

Phones ring. Doors slam. Flowers arrive by the bushel. Monkeys, Russian wolfhounds, yogis, babies and movie stars come and go. Hearts are broken, careers are made, and productions are planned. It's just a typical afternoon at the Cavendishes' swank duplex apartment as this temperamental clan of actors balances personal affairs with chaotic stage lives.

George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's 1927 comedy "The Royal Family" is given a rousing revival by the Manhattan Theatre Club. Doug Hughes' crack staging 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.

Loosely based on the Barrymore family, this jolly romp was rescued from obscurity by a critically acclaimed staging by Ellis Rabb in 1975, which also aired on PBS. That production was a gentle valentine to a bygone Broadway era. Hughes has opted for all-out farce with an unapologetically over-the-top interpretation.

At first it's a bit hard to take, with the cast running about, screaming lines and mugging shamelessly. But gradually the audience and the actors get used to each other, and the hectic proceedings take on a believable tone. The Cavendishes are still an eccentric lot, but the cast invests in their caring for each other and their driving passion for the stage.

The leading light of the 1975 staging was Rosemary Harris, who played Julie Cavendish, the glamorous leading lady not unlike Ethel Barrymore, who must choose between her career and marriage to a wealthy old flame. 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. Combining off-the-wall comic desperation with a refined sense of poise, Maxwell is totally convincing as that extinct species: a national star of the stage. She can toss off Kaufman and Ferber's quips, coquettishly flirt, bounce off the walls of John Lee Beatty's elegant set and show off Catherine Zuber's spectacular costumes with equal finesse.

Reg Rogers channels the out-of-control Jack Barrymore as Julie's raffish brother Tony. Dueling, wooing and ranting with abandon, he is every inch the self-indulgent, charismatic matinee idol. John Glover and Ana Gasteyer get considerable comic mileage out of the somewhat buffoonish roles of Herbert Dean, Fanny's hammy sibling, and Kitty, his shrewish wife. Filling in for the ailing Tony Roberts, Anthony Newfield lends avuncular authority to Oscar Wolfe, the family's levelheaded manager. Kelli Barrett is energetic and attractive as Julie's daughter Gwen. Larry Pine and Freddy Arsenault are properly stuffy as the conventional beaus of the Cavendish ladies.

Even the smaller roles are filled with resourceful performers. David Greenspan as the butler Jo and Caroline Stefanie Clay as the maid Della find priceless comic bits in these usually throwaway parts. When the servants are just as winning as the leads, that tells you this is one regal and enjoyable "Royal Family."

Venue: Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (Through Nov. 29)
Cast: Rosemary Harris, Jan Maxwell, Reg Rogers, John Glover, Ana Gasteyer, Anthony Newfield, Kelli Barrett, Larry Pine, Freddy Arsenault, David Greenspan, Caroline Stefanie Clay
Playwrights: George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber
Director: Doug Hughes
Set director: John Lee Beatty
Costume director: Catherine Zuber