We gave it a B+
In the last year, the Manhattan Theatre Club has mounted three backstage comedies that originated in the first half of the 20th century: a dreadful adaptation of the 1942 film To Be or Not to Be, a decent revival of the 1934 show Accent on Youth starring David Hyde Pierce, and now the 1927 chestnut The Royal Family. This revival by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber is easily the best of the lot, a surprisingly limber three-act send-up of the storied Barrymore clan of actors.
The divine Rosemary Harris plays Fanny Cavendish, the widowed grand dame of a storied, New York-based acting family. Her daughter, Julie (the delightful Jan Maxwell), is Broadway’s reigning star who seems to be single-handedly supporting everyone else: her ingenue daughter (Kelli Barrett); her ne’er-do-well brother (Reg Rogers), who’s fled Hollywood after slugging his director; her free-loading, past-his-prime uncle Herbert (John Glover); and Herbert’s even more clueless actress wife (Ana Gasteyer). As you might guess, the members of this family have a flare for the dramatic — to mostly hilarious effect. (Meanwhile, a cadre of long-suffering servants and the family business manager look in on the proceedings and try to maintain order — the manager is played by the justly beloved Tony Roberts, who fell ill during the Oct. 4 preview but is expected to resume performances on opening night.)
Yes, The Royal Family is old-fashioned. And yes, it’s a bit windy at nearly three hours. But the vanity of actors and the ravenousness of the tabloid press remain remarkably unchanged since the ’20s. Kaufman and Ferber’s dialogue is still bitingly funny, and Maxwell’s center-stage meltdown at the end of the second act is a priceless showstopper. This show is as sturdily constructed as John Lee Beatty’s impressively ornate two-level set, which recreates the Cavendishes’ luxe Park Avenue apartment. B+
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800.432.7250)