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The Guthrie highlights a frequently neglected Jewish playwright

By MAX SPARBER

The Guthrie Theater has a relatively new artistic director, Joseph Haj, who has promised greater diversity in the plays the theater chooses to stage. Despite this, on its surface, The Royal Family, playing through March 19 at the Guthrie, isn’t much of a break from the sorts of plays the theater has produced for decades.

The play was cowritten by George S. Kaufman and debuted in 1927, and the Guthrie has demonstrated longstanding tastes for both Kaufman and the Roaring 20s. In the past decade they have produced Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s Once in a Lifetime, and they regularly costume and set design Shakespeare plays as though the Bard had been a Jazz Age author.

Michelle O’Neill (Julie Cavendish) and Shawn Hamilton (Oscar Wolfe) in the Guthrie Theater’s The Royal Family, written by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber and directed by Rachel Chavkin. (Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp)

The Royal Family isn’t an especially avant-garde script either. Kaufman authored crowd-pleasers, and this play, about three generations of a theatrical family inspired by the Barrymores, is an enjoyable romp, awash with both daffy satiric jabs at the theatrical family and some unforced sentiment.

But The Royal Family had a second author, Edna Ferber. She was a Kalamazoo-born daughter of a Hungarian Jewish shopkeeper, who grew up to be one of America’s finest writers. Her works include Show Boat, Giant (the basis for the 1956 film) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning So Big.

In the past, the Guthrie notoriously failed to seek out work by women for their stage, and audiences might be forgiven for thinking there just weren’t many great plays written by women, especially within The Guthrie’s vague mission of presenting classical theater and contemporary classics.

Of course, there are women who fit that mission, plenty of them, and Ferber is a terrific example; it’s great to see her work on the Guthrie stage.

While Kaufman’s name comes first in the credits, The Royal Family showcases many of Ferber’s greatest strengths, not the least of which is her ability to create sharply drawn female characters. This version of the Barrymores is functionally a matriarchy, with three generations of exceptionally talented actresses each struggling with their relationship with theater.

Central among them is Julie Cavendish, played here by Michelle O’Neill, who is entering middle age as a star of the stage, but whose personal life is a disaster, and who has assumed responsibility for the remainder of her family, especially the men, who are uniformly pompous manchildren. She also cares for her ailing mother, a fading star (played by an actual doyenne of the stage, Elizabeth Franz) and her upstart daughter (played by Victoria Janicki).

The Guthrie has turned this play over to Rachel Chavkin, a highly regarded Brooklyn-based stage director, who in an interview with American Jewish World highlighted Ferber’s role in writing the play. “I feel like I should have learned about Ferber in high school,” she said, lamenting the lack of female playwrights she was exposed to when younger.

Chavkin sees the play as echoing Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, with its focus on an actress struggling to preserve a family estate, and, under Chavkin’s direction, the Cavendish apartment in Manhattan becomes an additional character. It is filled with theatrical bric-a-brac, its many shelves literally framed by hundreds of skulls, presumably preserved from the family patriarch’s many performances as Hamlet; his portrait looms over the family.

One wall is given over to massive marquis-style lights reading “The Royal Family,” which will sometimes spring to life or grow in luminescence during dramatic moments. There are even theatrical lights strung through the house, and when a performer is having an especially histrionic moment, another cast member will seize one of these to throw a literal spotlight on them.

I suggested to Chavkin that the play is about the subject of theater and was immediately rebuffed; she feels it is about family. But it is about theater, obsessively so, and despite Chavkin’s assertion to the contrary, her staging highlights this fact. At a time when we still struggle to find popular entertainment that includes two women discussing anything other than men, The Royal Family gives us three women who are capable of obsessively discussing theater.

Two of the Cavendishes find themselves struggling between the demands of romance and the demands of theater, and the play puts up a mighty defense for the intrinsic value of theater while treating romance as a distraction, and a somewhat dull one at that.

In one argument, which Chavkin stages like an expressionistic psychotic episode, the youngest Cavendish argues with her beau about what it will be like to marry an actress. He is appalled by it, as it interferes with a quiet life of polite family dinners, but she snaps back at him that she can name theatrical luminaries dating back thousands of years, that she is heir to a cultural tradition that ordinary people cannot claim.

It should be said that this production is frequently extremely funny, especially benefiting from Matthew Saldívar in the John Barrymore role as a womanizing theatrical cad. He exaggerates his character to an almost abstract level, playing up both his boyishness and his taste for derring-do; he almost seems like a 10-year-old boy impersonating Errol Flynn, and doing a surprisingly good job of it.

But even he has a semi-serious moment when he discovers a play he likes and gathers everyone around to discuss it, and they all clump around the family’s piano as he plays some of the score, and there they are, this theatrical dynasty, engrossed by theater and unconcerned about anything else.

Of course Chavkin is right; the play is about family, and, in particular, one woman’s attempt to assist her family through a series of crises. But this is a theatrical family, and the crises are theatrical, and the solution in this play, always, again and again, is more theater.

(American Jewish World, 2.10.17)

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