'The Royal Family'

While the ensemble work could be tighter, lead performers rise to the occasion in sparkling turns.

There’s a sentimental satisfaction in watching Rosemary Harris — who played equivocating diva Julie Cavendish in the 1976 Broadway revival of “The Royal Family” — still navigating the stage with grace and good humor, this time as the clan’s proud matriarch, in the play’s latest appearance. The rhythms of Doug Hughes’ production are too uneven to make all its rewards equal, but George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s 1927 comedy about a New York stage dynasty retains plenty of charm for theater lovers. And while the ensemble work could be tighter, its lead performers rise to the occasion in sparkling turns.

Manhattan Theater Club has brought in a deluxe design team to create the swanky Eastside duplex of the Cavendishes, Kaufman and Ferber’s cheeky satirical riff on the Barrymores. John Lee Beatty’s lavish set earns a round of applause and envious gasps as the curtain goes up, its grand staircase just made for dramatic entrances, and its walls dripping with the kind of pompous ostentation that befits Manhattan aristocracy with classical aspirations. Costumer Catherine Zuber outfits them in drop-dead 1920s glamourwear that somehow looks effortless.

But the strained initial action — as the bustling household hums with the constant noise of phones and doorbells, deliveries and other comings and goings — supplies the first clue that Hughes is not quite at home in this job. Comedy has not been the director’s chosen form in his major New York credits, and a vehicle like this one — whose acerbic witticisms have to contend with a certain creakiness and more whimsical atmosphere than narrative substance — may not have been the best place to make the switch.

Too often, the play falls back on that dated device of having scenes dissolve into chaos and squabbling, with everyone shouting over one another. Try as he might, Hughes can’t make these moments play as anything but stilted mayhem.

But plot is secondary to characterizations here, and as the actors steadily bring definition to their roles, the production does find a workable comic footing, somewhere between the first and second of its three acts.

Inhabiting a world as rarefied and hermetic as a vintage New Yorker cartoon, the Cavendishes, their trusted manager Oscar Wolfe (Tony Roberts) and even their domestic staff (Caroline Stefanie Clay, David Greenspan) regard “normal,” nontheatrical folks (playwrights included) with suspicion, bafflement or outright scorn. So the announcement that the lineage’s latest budding star, Gwen (Kelli Barrett), will quit the stage to play housewife to stockbroker sweetheart Perry (Freddy Arsenault) spreads panic.

At various points in the play, members of all three generations threaten to stray from their beloved profession. Celebrated leading lady Julie (Jan Maxwell) is tempted by the dependability of Gilbert Marshall (Larry Pine), an emerald-and-platinum magnate who wants to whisk her off to Brazil. Pursued by tabloid reporters and plagued by lawsuits, Julie’s brother Tony (Reg Rogers), who has forsaken the stage to become a movie star in the Errol Flynn mold, plans to lie low in Europe. Their widowed mother, grande dame Fanny (Harris), is a trooper determined to continue touring forever, emulating her husband, who died at the end of four curtain calls. But her age and ill health may pose problems.

The family’s least talented members are the most unwavering in their commitment to the thespian life: Fanny’s brother, Herbert (John Glover), a vain, inveterate ham whose career has stalled, and his crass shrew of a wife, Kitty (Ana Gasteyer), the target of some withering observations from Fanny.

Maxwell is a willowy, fluttering delight as a self-dramatizing woman who thinks in stage directions, rarely uttering a word or striking a pose without first calculating how it plays to her audience — even during the accelerating hysteria of a beyond-the-brink monologue. Harris delicately balances graciousness and hauteur, while Rogers summons an unpredictable, madcap energy that fits the material and period to a T.

Glover and Gasteyer make a fine comic team as the family sponges, stubbornly oblivious to their pariah status. The sharpness of their bickering interplay doesn’t quite extend to the full cast, and Hughes hasn’t yet gotten everyone working in perfect sync. But the like-minded mother-daughter bond between Harris and Maxwell is entirely credible, as are the ties of siblings Julie and Tony, one as self-absorbed as the other and both greedy for the spotlight.

Barrett is a weaker link, her Gwen a little low on charm. Oscar perhaps could have used a more wry ethnic flavor, but Roberts ably straddles both sides of a character who’s a business-savvy manipulator as well as a trouble-shooting guardian. The eternally droll Greenspan is wasted here, while Pine’s and Arsenault’s characters belong to another world that doesn’t share a common language, cementing their thankless roles as family outsiders.

Kaufman and Ferber’s play is both dusty and thin, but what keeps it entertaining is its unambiguous love for the theater, particularly evident in Fanny’s touching recital of an actor’s nightly pre-curtain rituals. At a time when promising young actors and writers often springboard from early stage recognition to more lucrative careers in television, it’s a pleasure to spend time with characters whose theatrical DNA is too strong to be denied. And when Oscar reels the wandering Julie back into the fold with his talk of “the theater of the future,” it’s tempting to close your eyes and fantasize that the creative explosion of American playwriting is still to come.

The Royal Family

Samuel J. Friedman Theater; 650 seats; $97 top

Production

A Manhattan Theater Club presentation of a play in three acts by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. Directed by Doug Hughes.

Crew

Set, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Kenneth Posner; original music, Maury Yeston; sound, Darron L. West; hair and wigs, Tom Watson; fight direction, Rick Sordelet; production stage manager, Rick Steiger. Opened Oct. 8, 2009. Reviewed Oct. 3. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

With

Kitty Dean - Ana Gasteyer Herbert Dean - John Glover Fanny Cavendish - Rosemary Harris Julie Cavendish - Jan Maxwell Gilbert Marshall - Larry Pine Oscar Wolfe - Tony Roberts Tony Cavendish - Reg Rogers Perry Stewart - Freddy Arsenault Gwen Cavendish - Kelli Barrett
With: Caroline Stefanie Clay, Rufus Collins, David Greenspan, Anthony Newfield, Henny Russell, Cat Walleck, John Wernke.
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