Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Royal Family

I have seen productions of a lot of “classic comedies” over the years, and often they have seemed stale and too stuffy by far, bloated into sleep-inducing stupor by someone’s sense of their “ENDURING IMPORTANCE.” Indeed, based on a lot of bad experiences with such zombie-like revivals in the past, I intended to avoid this production, but early buzz made it sound worthy of a visit.

I am happy to say that “The Royal Family” has been given a classy production, with well-paced direction and generally solid ensemble acting—not to mention the eye-catching set by scenic designer John Lee Beatty that captures just the right style for a well-to-do family living the high life in New York just before the Great Depression pulled the rug out. (How timely!)

I don’t know how much time anyone not totally immersed in the theatrical hierarchy depicted here would want to spend with the Cavendish family, whose self-absorbed members would probably not welcome us in except as part of a worshipful audience. But being part of an audience privileged to get a glimpse of the inner world of the multi-generational Cavendishes, who are barely able to function outside of a theater, is a real treat.

Director Doug Hughes has paced this production at a fast but appropriate clip, so that the evening rarely feels overly long or unnecessarily stretched out. Hughes understands the arc of the classic three-act comedy and has wisely let it play itself out properly, maintaining its two intermissions instead of slicing it somewhere in the middle to accommodate a single intermission expected by today’s audiences.

Outstanding performances are offered up by the always-glorious Rosemary Harris as the matriarch of the family, and by Jan Maxwell, who looks always like she would most be at home in the world of screwball comedy and who here plays Harris’s daughter Julie, the family’s reliable breadwinner and chief worrier. Reg Rogers brings a wonderful sense of manic insanity to his role as Julie’s totally irresponsible brother Tony; I can well imagine him in the Groucho Marx role in playwright George S. Kaufman’s “The Cocoanuts.” In the smaller role of the longtime family retainer, David Greenspan brings a goofy sense of servant-as-privileged-character and keeper-of-family-secrets.

I don’t want to oversell this production. It is what it is, after all, an American comedy from the 1920s, of a type that fits in with others of that ilk. Not all of it works, and not all of the acting is up to the level of those I have singled out for praise. But there is much to be admired in the often-sparkling dialog, the intelligent production, and top-notch performances by actors who seem to be able to place themselves in the period and style of the play, so that they bring a real sense of freshness to what could be a tired warhorse.

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