A Royal Family’s Look at the Roaring Twenties

Culture Watch
tags: theater reviews, The Royal Family

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

When Tony Cavendish arrives at his family’s lavish duplex apartment in New York all hell breaks loose. He has his arm in a sling, there is a rumor he either killed or nearly killed a movie director in Hollywood, the police from coast to coast are after him and he plans to flee the country on a fast cruise ship that departs at the stroke of midnight. There is excitement and bewilderment everywhere in the Cavendish household. It is a great start to a lovely play, The Royal Family, about the Roaring Twenties.

The problem is that it is NOT the start of the play. The scene takes place some thirty minutes after the play begins. Once Tony is in the play, it flies. Until the bigger than life Tony rushes through the front door, it drags.

The Royal Family, written by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber in 1927, that opened Saturday at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, Drew University, Madison, N.J., is a sharp and witty play, carried by marvelous actors, and lights up the skies of early summer. Despite its incredibly slow and tedious first thirty minutes, it is a gem of a play and a nice historical look at the 1920s in New York, Hollywood and Europe, with a sweet nod to cruise ships, trains and planes (and Tony’s howling dog) thrown in.

The Cavendish family (based on the show biz family of John Barrymore), has been entertaining America for decades. The mother, Fanny, tired and sick, is the head of a vast brood led by the personality laden Tony, Julie, Gwen, joined by friends Herbert Dean and his wife and suave and sophisticated manager/agent Oscar Wolfe. The clan is in crisis as the play opens. Tony, who bounds all across the stage, up and down the stairs and engages in a duel with swords, is off to Europe, two steps ahead of the police and Julie is in love with millionaire Gil Marshall and about to quit the stage to marry him. Gwen, her daughter, is in love with Perry Stewart and also about to leave the theater and start a new life with him. Fanny, the lovable mom entertainment legend, tries to get all of them to stay in show business, evoking the spirits of Cavendishes past. Will they remain and build on the legend or drop out and become “normal” people?

Director Bonnie Monte has done wonderful work in the play (the slow start is the fault of the playwrights, not her). It is difficult to take any family and make their personal and professional squabbles good theater, but Monte does with a deft hand. She gets wonderful performances in the show, especially from Benjamin Sterling as Tony, Samantha Bruce as Gwen, Elizabeth Shepherd as Fanny, Rosanna Hope as Julie and Edmond Genest as Oscar. Others in the cast include Emma O’Donnell, Patrick Toon, Jordan Buhat, Matt Sullivan, Allison Mackie, Tug Rice, Patrick Boll and Louse Heller.

Sterling, as Tony, is a whirlwind of activity. He is off stage more than e is on, and we miss him when he is off on some crazy adventure. In the second act, Rosanna Hope builds up the character of Julie nicely, as does Shepherd as the aging matriarch of the clan. She is sick and fading, and that serves as the hack drop to the story, that is at times sad and at times funny.

The drama and comedy are milked nicely from the script. There is one point in which Julie gives a long speech about why she wants to quit the theater and then someone yells that is time to leave for the play and she happily races for the door. It is an emotional touch.

What struck me as terribly interesting about The Royal Family was the way that show biz like in the 1920s (the play takes place in 1927) reflects life in entertainment today. The Cavendish apartment is besieged by paparazzi when it is learned that law enforcement is chasing the actor. Everyone comes in and out of the house out of breath from ducking the press and Tony claims he is a prisoner of the building. How is that, 88 years ago any different form stars bombarded by the paparazzi today? One more photo, Mr. Crowe? How is your husband, Kim? Will you get off probation, Lindsay?

There is a charm to the play, too, because it is set just prior to the stock market crash of 1929. Life is still boisterous for the Cavendishes, for everybody, and there is nothing but blue skies up ahead.

The Royal Family is not staged that often because it is a long play (2 ½ hours) and because it is a bit dated. Director Monte has given it new life, though, and perhaps now people around the country will see it more often.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Scenic Design: Charles Murdock Lucas, Costumes: Maggie Dick, Lighting: Anthony Galaska, Sound: Karin Graybash., Fight director: Rick Sordelet. The play is directed by Bonnie Monte. It runs through June 21.

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