Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (STNJ) opens the 2015 season with a fever dream for all theater people from onstage to audience–George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s “The Royal Family.” Two members of the Algonquin Round Table writing about the thinly disguised Barrymore dynasty, while of course hotly denying the Cavendish family bore any resemblance to the Barrymores, made a huge splash with this romp when it first debuted, with many cultural references from the late 1920s. Remember, it was called the Roaring 20s and no one roared louder than the Cavendish clan. Anything you can do, they practically invented!
While the life of the family nominally is centered around Fanny Cavendish (Elizabeth Shepherd), the true North Star of the family is Julie (Roxanna Hope). She is the one funding the family with her indefatigable spirit and skill on the boards and she gets that from her mother and has seemingly passed it on to her daughter Gwen (Samantha Bruce). And there are, of course, leading men. Julie’s brother Tony (Benjamin Sterling) is the definition of charming, roguish ne’er-do-well, who is a less-brave version of a Hemingway character–he can drink, fence, brawl, fish, and wench with the best of them, but it’s the women he’s constantly fleeing.
Herbert Dean (Matt Sullivan) is a true finagler, always looking for the angle, whilst playing up their family connections to the more famous members of the clan. He and his wife Kitty (Allison Mackie) make a career out of the long con. They were working a room before “networking” was invented and they can leverage the smallest opportunity. Equally adept at persuasion is the family’s long-term manager, who’s long since become a member of the family, Oscar Wolfe (Edmond Genest). The third act is when Oscar’s true genius shows.
Young Gwen’s romance with Perry Stewart (Tug Rice), who’s equally smitten with her, goes awry in the way that only young love can, and they have no idea they are mirroring a conflict that Julie had with the dashing Gil Marshall (Patrick Boll) some twenty years before. Julie and Gil had parted ways, yet their love still smolders. Yet Perry and Gil, both men of business, don’t quite get how the theater is part of the Cavendish DNA, and will they make that discovery to their peril?
Bonnie Monte, in her 25th season as STNJ Artistic Director, is masterful at the helm of this cast of leads. Much as in real life, each of these people is headlining his or her own personal drama and shouldn’t we all be the stars of our lives? These are people who don’t just live outside the lines, they set the boundaries and standards for the rest of us mere mortals, challenging their staff, Della (Emma O’Donnell), Jo (Patrick Toon), McDermott (Ryan McCarthy), Hall-Boy (Jordan Buhat), and the redoubtable Miss Peake (Louise Heller) to their limits. Kaufman and Ferber have written this play as a double concerto and when Julie’s Turn happens—remember that “Rose’s Turn” was written in 1959—you’ll marvel, and when you see Della going quietly out of her mind while the maelstrom swirls around her, the pure genius of playwrights, director and superb cast make more magic than seems possible in the sum of the parts.
If you enjoy clever word play, and realize that we did not discover bon mots in the late 20th century, and if you admire fine practitioners of stage craft of all descriptions, then what are you waiting for? If you already have your tickets for this season, be sure to visit the website for the inside scoop on some of the references you’ll hear made. You’ll be in the know, regaling your theater companions with your knowledge–they don’t need to know when you learned it. Sit back, relax and enjoy a time that may not have been simpler, but it was a lot more witty! Visit www.shakespearenj.org