“The Royal Family” is a 1927 play about people who think there’s nothing more noble than make a living in the theater and why they are crazy for doing so. And, to be honest, nearly a century later choosing to go on the stage is still crazy.
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s current production of George S. Kauffman and Edna Ferber ’s play — a not very well disguised comedy about the famous Barrymore acting clan —continues through June 21 in Madison. If you’ve never seen it, catch this excellently staged, superbly acted version opening the theater’s 53rd season.
Bonnie Monte, celebrating her 25th season as the company’s artistic director, has a steady hand on the helm of this traditionally staged work filled with one-liners, put downs, dramatic scenes, and cut-throat competition for center stage. The Act 2 meltdown alone is worth the price of admission.
The nearly three-hour play takes place in 1927 over two days, with the third act one year later, and centers on family matriarch Fanny (Elizabeth Sheperd), daughter Julie (Roxanna Hope) and granddaughter Gwen (Samantha Bruce), who will be making her stage debut with her mother in a few days. They all live together. And they all love to make an entrance, all the time.
Meanwhile, Gwen’s brother Tony (Benjamin Sterling), the family’s black sheep since he has left the stage to make movies in Hollywood (“You can’t call being in pictures acting,” says Herbert.) is on the run and is unexpectedly expected any minute. Based on John Barrymore, the carousing bachelor is running from a process server attempting to deliver breach of contract papers from his most recent lover. This is a serial problem for the larger-than-life character. There’s also a sword fight on the stairs of the two-story set designed by Charles Murdock Lucas.
At the eye of this theatrical storm is family friend and producer Oscar Wolf, delightfully played by long-time festival actor Edmond Genest. He doesn’t really argue with the high-strung clan, he manipulates them instead. When Julie decides maybe she should marry former boyfriend Gil Marshall (Patrick Boll), now a multi-millionaire, and move to South America, Wolf doesn’t argue. He just keeps mentioning how much time she will have to relax (code for being bored) and the new ground-breaking play she will miss out on until you can tell she will never leave the limelight.
This is a family that lives for having a live on the stage; nothing else much matters. But Gwen throws a monkey wrench into the mix when her fiancée Perry Stewart (Tug Rice) talks her into choosing a normal life with him, and she does.
“Marriage isn’t a career, it’s an incident,” Fanny tells her, adding her marriage and reception to an actor was held on stage between performances. And much later, her ailing husband refused to die until he completed the 35-week theatrical season and finished four curtain calls.
The play has it’s charms. Julie’s Act 2 meltdown is a highlight. So, too, are the minor characters Della, Jo and Hall-Boy, Emma O’Donnell, Patrick Toon and Jordan Buhat, the Cavendish servants who are used to serving breakfast and lunch and afternoon tea at the same time in this zany household. With very few lines as the maid, O’Donnell would have stolen several scenes just by her actions if there weren’t so much going on elsewhere. I looked forward to seeing her each time she entered.