It’s 1927, and the reign of America’s leading theatrical family, the Cavendishes, is in dire danger.
Fanny (Elizabeth Shepherd), the matriarch, is itching to get back on the road and do another tour, but her faltering health makes that an iffy proposition. Her brother Herbert (Matt Sullivan) has lost his box office appeal. Her daughter Julie (Roxanna Hope), an established star, and her granddaughter Gwen (Samantha Bruce), a budding star, are in relationships that threaten to draw their attention away from the stage. Her son Tony (Benjamin Sterling), who has turned his back on Broadway to spend his time in — it’s almost too shameful to think about — Hollywood, is embroiled in the latest of his many scandals.
“The Royal Family,” a play that is opening the 2015 season at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison, is a 1927 comedy co-written by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber; they based it loosely on the Barrymores, who reportedly were not amused.
As opposed to most plays about a family, it’s not really about the characters’ relationships with each other. It’s about their shared addiction to the stage, and how they will do just about anything to get another fix.
Fanny — who got married, decades ago, before a matinee, and had her wedding supper onstage between the matinee and the nighttime performance — is the truest believer of them all. Age has not given her a more balanced, philosophical view of life; acting is the only thing that matters to her. And her enthusiasm has crept into everyone else in the family, to varying degrees. Gwen may carp, at one point, “I’m sick of being a Cavendish. I want to be a human being.” But she’s got the bug, too.
The entire play takes place in the family’s large Manhattan apartment, though there’s plenty of chaos within this swanky setting, as Tony hides out from the press, and Julie struggles to resolve various family issues so she can make her opening curtain, and servants Jo (Patrick Toon) and Della (Emma O’Donnell) scurry around trying to satisfy the whims of their employers, and manager Oscar Wolfe (Edmond Genest) comes by to flatter — and manipulate — his clients. These are people who never stop acting; even in their most casual chats, every word and gesture seems chosen for dramatic effect.
The humor is usually dry. For instance, Herbert, bickering with his wife Kitty (Allison Mackie), reminds her that before she married into the family, she had accomplished little, professionally.
Herbert: “What were you when I married you?”
Kitty: “I was understudying Mannering in ‘The Garden of Allah’ ”
Herbert: “You were an offstage noise!”
It’s a lavish play, in its own way, with a cast of 14, three acts (all about 50 minutes long), a handsome set and elegant clothes. (Julie’s white fur coat underscores the point that she’s the real star off this family.) The pacing is relaxed, the acting consistently assured. Director Bonnie J. Monte (also the Shakespeare Theatre’s artistic director) doesn’t try to reinvent the play, but lets its deadpan zingers and sly observations about us applause-craving human beings speak for themselves.
The play runs through June 21. For tickets and more information, visit shakespearenj.org.