The Royal Family

Not even a minor technical derailment in the third act can hinder the momentum of this venerable piece of American theater, which first appeared in 1927. This light comedy still has the power to summon chuckles, albeit not guffaws. The first act’s biggest line can perhaps only be played for applause instead of a laugh, as it is in MTC’s production. Kaufman’s gift for mayhem blends well with Ferber’s deep-rooted sense of family tradition—whether she’s writing about Midwestern farmers or here, the Cavendishes, a slightly veiled stand-in for the talented and mercurial Barrymore family of actors at the top of the American twentieth century. It is a play that calls up W-words to describe it: waspish, wistful, wacky.

Director Doug Hughes spins up the tempo to near-farce levels, overlapping as much expository dialogue as he can and more. A booming sound effect for the front door (about which I am ambivalent) sets a bass drum rhythm that keeps the show on pace to stay under the three-hour mark.

Jan Maxwell as Julie, flinging herself about the stage in the first act like the colt she once was, is nicely balanced by Ana Gasteyer as the grasping, talent-free Kitty. In early scenes of bickering with her husband Herbert (John Glover as a graying leading man), Gasteyer’s elastic mug looks like she’s just gulped a glass of vinegar. However, as the frenzy spirals up in the second act, both of the ladies’ performances skate on the edge of caricature.

Reg Rogers brings the swash and buckle as rakish Tony (the would-be John Barrymore), especially in a very good fencing sequence at the top of Act 2 with Rufus Collins.

A meticulous, beautiful two-and-a-half level set by John Lee Beatty is lit by Kenneth Posner (who places countless practicals in this grand New York apartment).

  • The Royal Family, by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, directed by Doug Hughes, Manhattan Theatre Club, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, New York