PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Royal Family — A Blast of Troupers!

By Harry Haun
09 Oct 2009

The Royal Family's Rosemary Harris and Jan Maxwell; director Doug Hughes, composer Maury Yeston and guest Alison Pill
The Royal Family's Rosemary Harris and Jan Maxwell; director Doug Hughes, composer Maury Yeston and guest Alison Pill
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's funny valentine to Theatre, The Royal Family, went on — as shows must — Oct. 9 at the Friedman, and in the role of Oscar Wolfe, usually played by Tony Roberts, was... Tony Roberts.

Five days earlier, shortly after his entrance at the Sunday matinee, the actor suffered a slight seizure on stage and was rushed to the hospital, so when he showed up on stage for the opening — sporting a fur-trimmed topcoat and cane, looking spiffy and imperious — the audience welcomed him back with the strongest, most sustained applause of the evening, and it was seconded at the end when he took a curtain call.

Topping the applause meter is no mean achievement in this play, where entrances, exits, spiked lines, bits of "business" and other tricks of the theatrical trade have been carefully designed and executed to keep the audience clapping and laughing.

Roberts plays the voice of levelheaded reason in these proceedings, managing a plainly unmanageable menagerie of actors — the Cavendish clan. Ruling the roost — or, at least, holding it together — is the ailing matriarch, Fanny (Rosemary Harris), a theatrical die-hard who will have to be scraped off the stage. The commitment to the family business weakens by gradations and generations: Fanny's daughter, Julie (Jan Maxwell), is the reigning bread-winner of the moment, and her 18-year-old offspring, Gwen (Kelli Barrett), is warming up in the ingénue bullpen, but both of them are giving serious thought of taking off the greasepaint and marrying outside the business (Larry Pine and Freddy Arsenault are their buttoned-down suitors). Fanny is, of course, horrified. "Marriage is not a career," she huffs indignantly. "It's an incident."

In case that's not enough actors to shake an agent at, relatives are bussed in. Fanny's younger brother, Herbert Dean (John Glover), and his low-rent wife, Kitty (Ana Gasteyer — both conspicuously farther down on the acting chain — drop by constantly, perpetually in need. Then, there's the periodic invasions — replete with trunks — of Fanny's film-star son, Tony (Reg Rogers), ever the fugitive from a fistfight or an affair or a process server, with the paparazzi in hot pursuit.

What Kaufman and Ferber were doing 82 years ago, by any other name, was unloading a barrel of Barrymores on stage and letting them make merry in a posh penthouse playpen. It's a two-tier affair that John Lee Beatty has designed for the occasion, with the most manically overworked staircase in recent memory.

The opening-night party was not held at The Plaza, as you could suppose from all the ritzy airs that the play put on. No, it was held on another planet — Planet Hollywood, where beer, wine, pigs-in-a-blanket and mini-burgers were served.

The classy cast upgraded the surroundings by their very presence, starting with the 82-year-old Harris, poised and serene as ever. She did admit to a definite déjà vu, having been a Cavendish before — Julie in the warmly remembered 1975-76 revival that won Harris' ex, Ellis Rabb, a Tony for his loving, precise direction. Early in the run, he took over the role of Tony from George Grizzard and reprised it on TV.

What was it like returning to this pinnacle in her career? "Well, it was a very emotional journey," she responded, "a very happy one, not sad. I was just so thrilled this production rose above the occasion. You know, I would have been sad if it had not been quite as good as ours 30 years ago, but it is as good, if not better.

"The theatre is irresistible, isn't it? And, as Fanny says of the audience, 'They'd give their ears to be in your place. Don't make any mistake about that.' There are so many people who'd have loved to have lives on the stage — the great 'wicked' stage."

It was news to Harris that she was now playing the same house where Eva Le Gallienne — Fanny to Harris' Julie — played her last starring role on Broadway (1981's To Grandmother's House We Go). "That moves me," she said. " I feel her hovering. I have a large framed photograph of her in my dressing room. I'm channeling her. I say, 'How did you do this line, 'LeG'?' I can hear her in my ear."

She likes the way the play shifts emotional gears for the last of its three acts. "You know, in the old days, there were always three acts, and people used to scratch their heads and say, 'We've got a great play, but we don't have a third act.' Kaufman and Ferber really pulled the rabbit out of the hat because they just pile up one wonderful moment after the other. In fact, I don't think I've ever been in a better third act."

Harris doesn't subscribe to Fanny's hard line of career-over-marriage, and she hasn't lived it. "It's a juggle," she allowed. "I know Jen finds it a juggle. She has an 11-year-old son and a wonderful husband, and she has to keep everything on an even keel."

"Jen" is her daughter, Jennifer Ehle, herself a two-time Tony winner. She is currently filming an HBO television pilot in Northern Ireland, her mother reported.

The Royal Family would seem to be a perfect opportunity for mother-and-daughter at last to co-star. They have done two films together — a 1992 TV-film, "The Camomile Lawn," and a 1999 feature, "Sunshine" — but, playing the old and young versions of the same character, they never had the chance to do a scene together.

Ehle was indeed offered the play but opted to pass. "She said, 'Mom, you did it, and I would only do it the way you did it.' Comparisons are odious, and maybe, like Julie Cavendish, I didn't want her to be better than me — so I didn't encourage it."

Harris has nothing but praise for Maxwell, who had the unenviable task of playing Julie right there in front of her. "Oh, she's lovely," she trilled. "She's thoroughly professional. She just took it and ran with it, and I saw her grow in it. Y'know, every rehearsal she grew more and more and more. And I think she's absolutely terrific."

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Rosemary Harris
Photo by Aubrey Reuben
For Maxwell, the feeling is quite mutual. Her first appearance is, in fact, what is often called "a Rosemary Harris entrance" — bursting full-hearted on to the stage. Maxwell does it on the second-floor landing, positioning herself perfectly between pillars.

She found much to identify with in Julie. "I like — and I don't like, but I feel extremely close to her — that she's a little too much like me. What I like about her is that she feels a little tired of the theatre — then, all of a sudden, turns around and realizes it's an incredibly wonderful place to live. I feel the same way about theatre. I think it gives you everything. It gives you an education. It gives you empathy. I think the world would be a better place if we were all just a little more empathetic."

The only shaky moment the cast experienced was, of course, when Roberts fell ill. "We were a little thrown when he was down for a couple of days, but he's back, he's fine, it's such a relief to all of us. You know, you feel like a limb is missing when somebody's not there. That's been our biggest problem. It was extremely joyful tonight to all be together and to be working together and having the family back."