by CHRISTINE SARKES
The Royal Family at the Guthrie Theater is an entertaining, long and chaotic mess of a tribute to a comically dysfunctional Broadway “theat-ah” family – a thinly-veiled homage to the Barrymore dynasty. Although the play has muddled themes of honoring family traditions, work/life balance and living up to parental expectations, it is really a showcase for the scene-chewing talents of the characters. “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players,” if you will. The scenery is spectacular, the lighting choices unique and the acting is energetic. Downton Abbey fans will especially enjoy similarities between the formidable matriarch Fanny Cavendish’s (Elizabeth Franz) snarky, snide commentaries and Maggie Smith’s Violet Crawley. I’m still puzzled over the costume designer’s decision to introduce clothing from time periods other than original 1920s setting, but my companion offered that it may have been a choice to convey the timelessness of the themes.
Written and set in 1920s Manhattan, The Royal Family focuses on the eccentric Cavendish dynasty, which comprises three generations of legendary American actors and their loyal staff: dowager Fanny Cavendish, who at seventy is planning an upcoming tour; Oscar (Shawn Hamilton), the steadfast manager; brother Herbert (Bill McCallum), a player now in his decline; Herbert’s ambitious actress wife Kitty (Angela Timberman); Fanny’s daughter Julie (Michelle O’Neill), at the height of her Broadway fame; Julie’s rising-star daughter Gwen (Victoria Janicki) and son Tony (Matthew Saldívar), who has forsaken Broadway for Hollywood and philandering. When love life complications and scandals hit the family at once, it seems that the Cavendish name and reputation are threatened. Fanny and Julie rule with a combination of strength, wit, courage, and determination, demanding that the show must go on. The comedic punch of the play increases exponentially when Saldivar hits the stage–he plays Tony with a frenetic physicality and hysterical nuttiness. Hamilton has great delivery as the long-suffering manager and also has some of the best lines of the play. Keeping the chaos manageable are servants Delia (Mo Perry) and Jo (Charles Hubbell).
Overall, the play is enjoyable for the energy of the cast and the visually appealing and intricate set design but it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. The broad comedy seemed overwhelmed by the chaos on stage. It does run long—three hours with two intermissions—and would have benefitted from some trimming.
The Royal Family by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, directed by Rachel Chavkin. Scenic Designer Marte Johanne Ekhougen, Costume Designer Brenda Abbandandolo and Lighting Designer Bradley King. Now through – March 19, 2017 on the McGuire Proscenium Stage at the Guthrie Theater, 818 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis. Tickets at the Guthrie Box Office at 612.377.2224, toll-free 877.44.STAGE, 612.225.6244 (Group Sales) and online at http://www.guthrietheater.org.