Seen on Broadway: A visit to the classy Samuel J. Friedman, the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Main Stem venue, often means a chance to revel in another gorgeous set designed by John Lee Beatty, and The Royal Family is no exception. We are instantly transported to 1927 and the New York duplex maintained by the Cavendish family, a troupe of actors who bear a more than passing resemblance to the Barrymore clan. (John enjoyed the barbed portrait painted in delightful collaboration by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber; Ethel, not so much.) Not a rug or throw pillow is out of place in the living room, which smells of taste and refinement. But there’s the whiff of ego: the proof of the family’s fame is plastered all over the posters and bric-a-brac on the walls, lovingly curated by Fanny Cavendish, a prima donna past her prime. It’s a museum quality that the younger family members, son Tony, daughter Julie, and granddaughter Gwen, all chafe against in their own ways during the show’s three acts.
Playing the lofty Fanny, an aged-in-ivory creature of the theatre despite her infirmity, is the 82-year-old Rosemary Harris, who received a Tony nomination when she played Julie the last time the show was revived, in the 1975-1976 season. Assuming the mantle is Jan Maxwell, an expert farceur who was wasted in last season’s Friedman flop To Be or Not to Be. She rebounds nicely as the increasingly frazzled Julie, who tries to keep Gwen in line with family tradition when she resists a stage career but has second thoughts about her own rising stardom when an old flame (Larry Pine) flickers. Off the stage but all over the headlines is the reckless Tony (Reg Rogers), a swashbuckling movie star whose flight from scandal threatens to bring the house down. The large, industrious, and faultless cast includes John Glover as Fanny’s vain, cash-strapped brother, Ana Gasteyer as his crass, status-seeking wife, David Greenspan as the unflappable butler, and a few stray animals. I saw the impeccable Tony Roberts as the ever-patient family manager the night before he fell ill onstage from a minor seizure; Anthony Newfield will play the part until he returns.
There’s not a lot of this kind of drawing-room comedy on the resume of director Doug Hughes, who is best known for Doubt, and is directing the forthcoming Broadway premiere of David Mamet’s cringe-a-minute Oleanna. With a crack cast at his disposal I assume his brief was to keep the show’s darker undercurrent, of lives consumed by acting and not living, swirling till it manifests itself. The surface East Side elegance is expertly handled by Catherine Zuber’s slightly-to-extravagantly exaggerated period clothing, Kenneth Posner’s exquisitely judged lighting, and Darron L. West’s crisp audio, which includes Maury Yeston’s original music. The Royal Family, which plays through Nov. 29, has been given the deluxe treatment. —Robert Cashill