The Royal Family

Most trips to the theater the audience members are merely observers and the play is presented to them on the stage. But walking through the doors of the O’Reilly Theater puts you in the living room at the heart of a Suite in a New York City skyscraper. It’s here that Pittsburgh Public Theater presents the The Royal Family, George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s intimate portrayal of a made up, elite and eccentric bohemian acting family – the Cavendishes.

O’Reilly’s stage extends outward, into the audience. Members seated in the front rows could be participants. They are so close they could share a drink and conversation with the actors if only the family or their exceptional butler would include them. Beyond the living room and its expensive furniture, are the doors to the kitchen and a grand stairwell lined with a golden banister going to the second floor and the family members’ rooms. Hidden on opposite sides of the stage are the apartment’s front door and den. The unfortunate side effect of such an ambitious set is that its immersion almost works against it. At times, small parts of the play occur in places that some members of the audience will have to strain to see. The heightened intimacy extends beyond the audience and the stage. The Cavendish family is so close they would be better described as a clan. They lean upon and support one another through successes and failures, relationships, careers and ambitions. Although, it’s silly to assume characters that are stereotyped fictions based upon 1920’s elitist actors would be free of hubris, arrogance large egos, or an occasional boxing lesson, sword fight, or wedding.

Of all the Cavendish’s, the eldest son Anthony is the most outrageous. David Whalen’s Tony loves the sound of his own voice and believes every outrageous thing he says about himself. He arrives at the family home after fleeing Hollywood as inconspicuously as possible, or as inconspicuously as possible for Tony; wearing a fur coat, sunglasses and large bright white, wide brim hat. Tony is obviously written to be larger than life and to maintain this believability Whalen constantly tops himself from scene to scene. Yes, Tony’s life becomes even more outlandish as the play progresses, and if not for Whalen redefining the extremes of Tony’s dramatic personality in each scene his character would lose its integrity.

Not all of the characters in The Royal Family are actors playing actors, however. The Cavendish’s butler, maid and personal trainer serve and care for them unconditionally through the entire play. Unlike the characters employing them, it takes time to realize the staff is also extraordinary. Never do they complain or slack in their responsibilities, even though their work never seems to end and they go mostly underappreciated. As characters they provide the thankless foundation that enables the Cavendish family to pursue their dramatic interests. As actors, the role requires the same attention to detail as playing a Cavendish, but with the additional burden of subtlety.

Like its characters, The Royal Family is more than what it seems. At first, it comes across as a story about actors, for actors. But it quickly becomes apparent that experience with actors and acting is not required to enjoy the play. The only things necessary to enjoy the show is the capacity to laugh at yourself and the realization that some things are too important to be taken seriously.


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