Two of the theater’s ranking Irish-American directors are back with new shows, one a revival of a classic comedy requiring a cast of sixteen, and the other a solo show performed by the actress who wrote it.
The multi-actor play, “The Royal Family,” first produced in l927, is being guided by Doug Hughes, son of the late and much-loved Barnard Hughes. The play is the only known collaboration between playwright George S. Kaufman and novelist Edna Ferber.
The characters are based loosely, on the Barrymores family – specifically, Ethel, John and Lionel — who were ranking Broadway stars at the time. The point at which the Cavendish clan conceived by Kaufman and Ferber comes closest to the actual Barrymores is in the character of the wild son, Tony, clearly based on John, at about the time he was starting his fitful movie career.
At the heart of “The Royal Family” is the powerful hold the theater exerts on those who devote their lives to it. The play is a comedy, although Hughes has approached aspects of it as though it were a knockabout farce with much screaming and rushing about John Lee Beatty’s elegant two-level set, depicting the Cavendish family’s New York apartment.
Where the Manhattan Theatre Club’s new production of the show is successfully is in the mother and daughter combination of Fanny, the retired icon, and Julie, the family’s current star, played wondrously by Rosemary Harris and Jan Maxwell. Both actresses manage to play the work’s serious aspects beautifully without slighting the comedy.
Some of Hughes’ casting is uncertain, but John Glover scores as Fanny’s unsuccessful brother, Herbert, as does Reg Rogers as the out-of-control Tony.
“The Night Watcher” Written/Performed By Charlayne Woodard ? Directed By Daniel Sullivan ? At 59E59 Theaters ? Thru October 31, 2009)
Charlayne Woodard came to fame more than 30 years ago as a member of the original cast of the Fats Waller musical, “Ain’t Misbehavin.'” Since then, the actress has created a series of excellent solo shows, most of them shaped and directed by Dan Sullivan, who directs her current production, “The Night Watcher,” at 59E59.
The somewhat illusive subject of “The Night Watcher” is the effect children have had on the actress’ life, despite the fact that she has no little ones of her own.
It was probably unavoidable that, in telling these stories, Woodard would emerge as a sort of heroine, which was almost certainly not her intention when she set about to create this particular work.
There is an aspect of “The Night Watcher” in which the actress seems to be answering questions nobody had asked, as though she were feelimg guilty about having remained childless. In addition, Woodard’s show feels slightly padded, particularly in the portion before the intermission.
Despite these minor caveats, “The Night Watcher” is mainly fascinating, and its creator is a luminous and intelligent performer, particularly as presented by Dan Sullivan.