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October 10th, 2009

Royal Family

It's Theatre Season in New York again.  New plays are going into preview and opening and tickets are showing up on TDF again after a long summer of Old Warhorses and Tourist Fodder.

Last night, we saw The Royal Family.

This is not a new play.  It was written in 1927 by George Kaufman and Edna Ferber.  It comes out of an era when movies were in their infancy as popular culture and going to the theatre was a lot more common than it is now.  Kaufman and Ferber clearly didn't think much of Hollywood. The movie-actor son is lampooned mercilessly for being self-centered and over-sexed, and redeems himself with his family at the end by deciding to go back to the stage.  He very clearly comes from a world where action is everything, plot trumps character, and things move fast.  This play has next to no action (except when someone is pitching a glamor-fit), an inconsequential plot (will Tony get his passport in time to escape to Europe on a steamship?  Will Gwen marry Perry or become the greatest actress of her generation?  Will Julia get to the theatre on time?), and everything takes the time it takes, which is, when all is said and done, three hours of almost continuous talking.

But what talking!  There are some lines that were probably funnier (and more comprehensible) even 50 years ago, but so much of the humor depends on the characters and their interactions that the play itself doesn't date.  And it's so unabashedly theatrical.  When the characters aren't playing to each other, they're playing to themselves, watching their own reactions and words even in their most genuinely emotional moments.  Which is why the end of the play is so touching, I think. 1

Anyway.  Rosemary Harris (who played Julia in the 1975 Broadway revival to Eva LeGalliene's Fanny) played Fanny Cavendish, the matriarch of the clan.  Jan Maxwell (who I saw in Coram Boy two years ago) was Julia Cavendish, who does her artistic best to keep the family ticking along, with Reg Rogers (who has done a lot of TV) as her womanizing, brawling, overly-enthusiastic movie-actor brother.  Harris was luminous and acid and tender and finally touching.  Maxwell was harried, imperious, helpless, vulnerable, and hard as nails.  Rogers was so far over the top you needed binoculars to see him.  Ellen liked him; I thought he was a bit much.  We were agreed on finding Kelli Barrett (who has done movie and TV work, most frequently on As The World Turns) much too modern as Julia's daughter Gwen, and Tony Roberts a bit subdued as the family's manager Oscar.

But those are quibbles.  If you are a fan of theatre about the theatre or of beautiful sets or period-perfect costumes (Oh, those cloches!  Oh, those shoes!  Oh, Fanny's deep purple velvet gown in Act II and Julia's black cocktail dress in Act III!), there are tickets on TDF and I think it's a limited run.

1.  And here I wonder whether I should talk about that or not, because it's spoilery as all get out, but how many of you are going to see it?  Maybe I'll wait until it closes, and then talk about it.  That sound like a good idea?


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