With The Royal Family, The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey opens its 25th season with a three-hour epic of self-indulgence. Sometimes plays about theater can be, like Theresa Rebeck’s The Understudy, fun send-ups of the admittedly strange social practice of theater, and sometimes like, Alice Childress’s Trouble in Mind, they can use theater as a microcosm of the larger world for insightful social critique. But sometimes, like George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s 1927 The Royal Family, they can be little more than vehicles for a sense of self-congratulation for the apparently wondrous choice of a devotion to theater life. Although the productions features the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s regular retinue of strong performances, there’s little else to recommend this long rambling romp through the foibles of a theater family with whom the play gives us little reason to empathize.
The Cavendish family have been on the stage for several generations. The departed patriarch was renowned as the greatest Macbeth of his generation and his now-elderly widow Fanny (Elizabeth Shepherd), was his greatest leading lady. Fanny lives in an extravagant New York apartment with her daughter Julie (Roxanna Hope), the current brightest star in the royal Cavendish constellation, and Julie’s daughter Gwen (Samantha Bruce), in the process of making her emergence onto the royal proscenium by costarring on Broadway with her mother.
Over the course of the play there will be arguments about scripts and roles and the demands of theater and the hollowness of film, none of which amount to much. The seeming center of what is mostly a loose and disorganized play is the challenging toll theater life takes on the love lives of Gwen and Julie, both of whom get mixed up with wealthy men who have no connection to theater and ultimately must decide how best to negotiate that incongruity.
The direction of Bonnie J. Monte – the theater’s artistic director who in recent seasons has shown either a struggle or a lack of concern for keeping her own directing projects under three hours – seems invested in endorsing Kaufman and Ferber’s unmitigated adoration of theater life, as the performers carry themselves in the play’s only setting of the Cavendish home at all times as though they were in centre stage. Those actors, most especially Hope and Bruce, certainly do well to locate dimension in Kaufman and Ferber’s facile portraits, but there is little compelling here beyond an unabashed and uncritical ode to a life in theater.