Reviewed: “The Royal Family” At The Guthrie

A smart, funny, and often touching comedy, “The Royal Family” offers a nuanced portrayal of the struggle to shape an identity amid the ever present tensions between art and commerce, individual distinction and conformity, and tradition and assimilation.

Growing up in Ottumwa, Iowa, in the 1890s, Edna Ferber (1885-1968) was tasked with delivering lunch to her father in his downtown office. According to Janet Burstein’s account in “Jewish Women’s Archive,” every day Ferber “had to run a gauntlet of anti-Semitic abuse from adult male loungers, perched on the iron railing at the corner of Main Street, who spat, called her names, and mocked her in Yiddish accents.” In her autobiography, “A Peculiar Treasure,” Ferber credits the “sorrow” of those “astringent, strengthening” Ottumwa years with her fierce commitment to social justice and, indirectly with her gift as a writer. Ferber believed that the experience of oppression – in her case, as a Jew in an anti-Semitic, nativist culture — led to “creative self-expression.”

Ferber’s achievements may not be widely recognized now, but one of her novels, “So Big,” won the 1924 Pulitzer Prize. In addition, Ferber collaborated on a number of plays that came to be regarded as American classics. These include “Show Boat” (Ferber wrote the book and show; Jerome Kern the score ) and (with George S. Kaufman) “Dinner at Eight,” “Stage-Door,” and “The Royal Family,” the latter now running at The Guthrie.

The first thing to say is that The Guthrie’s “The Royal Family” is as fine a production of the play as you are ever going to find anywhere. Staged by Rachel Chavkin, one of the country’s top directors (also Jewish) and featuring lavish period sets and costumes, as well as uniformly stellar performances, the production is a real triumph for new artistic director Joseph Haj. It’s a show that everyone will enjoy.

The play is about a family of actors – loosely based on the Barrymore clan (whose descendent is the movie actress, Drew Barrymore) – as they encounter one crisis after another: romantic, fiscal, and professional. The Cavendishes are not Jewish, as their name would indicate. Neither were the Anglican Barrymores. And yet something about the way they banter and express themselves – and that very sharp, smart, and often antic sense of humor, made me think that somehow they should be Jewish. These are people who don’t mind talking over another member’s rant to ask the butler for an egg. They don’t pause at the foyer when they walk in. They throw their hat and big fur coat on the ground and fly up the stairs. A moment later they descend in their underwear. The household is like a newsroom – phone is always ringing off the hook, with three or four converasations going on at a time. And then there is the fact that they don’t hide their emotions. When some minor event disappoints them, they don’t merely grumble. They howl and rage until the walls and windows sway.

“Jews are just like everyone else, only more so,” Lionel Blue once famously wrote. As a child Ferber, channeled her own inclination to “Self-dramatization” into afternoon theatrical sketches with her sister. Her plans to become an actress were interrupted when, at 17, her father went blind and she was forced to take a job to support her family. Yet Ferber’s love for the theater – and for theater folk – never diminished. In “The Royal Family,” Ferber and Kaufman poke holes in the popular caricatures of histrionic, self-deluded “ahc-tor” types to penetrate to the humanity of dedicated artist- players. That celebrates the free expression of feelings as an desirable alternative to the spiritual stagnancy of “legitimate” society.

The Cavendishes are not the type of actors who keep the drama onstage. The Grand Dame of the family, Fanny (Elizabeth Franz), becomes so overwhelmed by cravings to return to the stage that she passes out. Brother Tony (Matthew Saldivar) shifts into classical drama mode, a servant rolls out a spotlight and shines it on him until he finishes. Of course, the idea being suggested is that there is a connection between the intensity of feelings they experience in their offstage life and their talent as actors – at least in an era when the favored performance style was heightened and somewhat melodramatic.

In this richly layered play, there is a dilemma that would have been familiar to Jews of Kaufman and Ferber’s generation: the clash between the yearning to assimilate and the desire to remain close to your family and culture. Yes, the great Julie Cavendish (Michelle O’Neill) , the reigning Queen of Broadway theater, enjoys her life but like her daughter Gwen (Victoria Janicki), she is also drawn to the lure of “normalcy.” At first, Julie imagines she can have it both ways. She will retire from the theater and go off to distant romantic spots with onetime flame, and billionaire-tycoon Gilbert Marshall (Robert Berdahl), who has recently returned from South America. At the same time she will find a way to keep an apartment in New York City just in case she gets hungry to do a show.

It comes as a shock to her that normalcy has a price. When it dawns on Julie when Gil reveals that he has nothing but contempt for her family and for their way of life she’s startled. Rather than valuing her for who she is and what has been, Gil’s plan is to rescue her from her “people” and introduce her to “real people … Solid! Substantaial! The kind that make a country what it is!” He’s going to whisk her off to South America to live like a caged bird to an isolated estate. Not to worry, though. She will like the workers (natives): “They’re like a lot of children….”

And that is the assimilationist double bind. That everything depends on who at any moment gets to define what “normal” is and who and what is “too much.” And so it dawns on Julie what Fanny has been driving at all along: that the “moreso” that sometimes seems too much for is a blessing and a source of strengh. And every time a Cavendish speaks Hamlet’s speech, gravedigger’s skull in hand, all the Cavendishes that ever were or will be stand beside them on the stage – and all the boundaries between them dissolve.

The Royal Family, by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, is playing through March 19, at the Guthrie Theater, McGuire Proscenium Stage. Directed by Rachel Chavkin. Scenic design by Marte Johanne Ekhougen, costume design by Brenda Abbandandolo and lighting design by Bradley King.