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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
The Royal Family

Midnight isn't as kind to me as it used to be. — Julie
Royal Family
: Left to right: Edmond Genet, Elizabeth Shepherd, Allison Mackie (Photo credit: Jerry Dalia)
While we are appreciative of the visit to Broadway of a current member of the United Kingdom's royal family, specifically Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II, as well as by the presence of the more historic King Henry VIII and entourage in Wolf Hall, we can also see how America once saw fit to anoint the Barrymore family of actors as its own Royal Family. This is the title given to them somewhat audaciously and/or sarcastically by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber in 1927 in their raucous comedy which has enjoyed numerous revivals over the years. It is the opening play of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey season, and you should go have yourself a grand time.

The play is said to have been summarily disowned by the Barrymores, the ennobled theater family whose lives appeared to have been satirized. With considerable tongue-in-cheek the authors, in turn, claimed they never heard of the Barrymores.

Perhaps the esteemed matriarch of the Barrymores didn't take kindly to criticism about her family, but the rest of us can hardly keep from laughing at the lines and many flippant bon mots that punctuate the fast and often funny, often over-lapping dialogue. Perhaps it is a moot point whether or not the Barrymores themselves inspired this delicious play about the Cavendishes, a family of indomitable actors with insufferable egos.

I can't honestly say that everything this observer saw on the stage was as celebratory of the "oldest profession" as its often dotty and only occasionally disciplined disciples would like us to believe. But here we have a splendid company, under the direction of Bonnie J. Monte, that has rambunctiously captured the extravagantly familial flavor at the core of the play. It will, however, take some patience and a bit of background for the younger generation to fully appreciate this dynasty of theatrical dinosaurs — unlike many of the audience members at the well-attended mid-week performance I saw who might well have seen the original production.

This production has a lot going for it, particularly graced by a notably regal Elizabeth Shepherd as Fanny. But all the ensemble members appear as if they have been given a royal command to carry on the tradition validated by its formidable characters.

The riotous chaos begins only seconds away from the time that the lights go up on set designer Charles Murdock Lucas' handsome evocation of the Cavendishes' New York City Victorian-accented residence. What could be more fun than starting off a romp with a flustered Irish maid (Emma O'Donnell and an almost giddily servile butler (Patrick Toon) coping with the incessant ringing of door bells and telephones, the intrusion of luggage-hauling porters, a physical trainer in action, and the entrance of the Deans — Herbert (Matt Sullivan) and Kitty (Allison Mackie) a pair of self-serving married actors ever-in-disaccord.

If you love the theater, its lore and its loonies, you should be amused by the sheer ebullience of the Royal Family's excesses. If the plot appears as uncompromisingly addled as are the characters entrusted to it, the text is brilliantly assured. The very royal and redoubtable Cavendish family can be depended upon to put on a show, if only for themselves.

Fanny Cavendish, the ailing queen mother of the Cavendishes, valiantly ignores the fact that she is cued for her final exit speech. But Fanny is a matriarch in control to the last. Reigning in a manner that could seen as winningly imperious, Fanny makes sure she retains her star-status even among the scene-stealing assortment of her off-spring. Roxanna Hope is persuasive as her daughter Julie, although she is a bit strident in her occasional histrionic outbursts.

Samantha Bruce is pretty and engaging as Julie's daughter Gwen, who can't decide between a career and marriage. Fanny's answer, "Marriage isn't a career, it's an incident," sums up the family's position.

The major scene-stealing is assigned to Benjamin Sterling, as the incorrigible gone-Hollywood son, whose robust performance (as he out Barrymore's John Barrymore) is marked by its self-aggrandizing flourishes. Edmond Genest is admirable as the unflappable Oscar Wolfe the Cavendish's theatrical manager, and Patrick Boll holds his own among the general cacophony and chaos as Julie's long-term ultra conservative millionaire suitor. Not to be up-staged is the stunning array of 1920's era costumes designed by Maggie Dick. This is a treat for theater-lovers that never wears out its welcome.

The Royal Family by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber
Directed by Bonnie J. Monte

Cast: Emma O'Donnell (Della), Patrick Toon (Jo), Jordan Buhar (Hall-Boy), Ryan McCarthy (McDermott/Chauffeur), Matt Sullivan (Herbert Dean), Allison Mackie (Kitty LeMoyne Dean), Samantha Bruce (Gwen Cavendish), Tug Rice (Perry Stewart), Elizabeth Shepherd (Fanny Cavendish), Edmond Genest (Oscar Wolfe), Roxanna Hope (Julie Cavendish), Benjamin Sterling (Tony Cavendish), Patrick Boll (Gil Marshall), Louise Heller (Miss Peake)
Scenic Designer: Charles Murdock Lucas
Costume Designer: Maggie Dick
Lighting Designer: Anthony Galaska
Sound Designer: Karin Graybash
Production Stage Manager: Denise Cardarelli
Fight Director: Rick Sordelet
Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, 36 Madison Avenue (at Lancaster Road) in Madison. 973-408-5600
Tickets: $32-$62
Performances: Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 pm; Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm.
From 05/27/15 Opened 05/30/15 Ends 06/21/15
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 03/03/15
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