At Pittsburgh Public Theater you find yourself thrust back into time, an earlier time when panache and personality gleamed on New York stages, where stars shone so much that the plays themselves didn’t necessarily matter that much. Those days become indelibly evoked in The Royal Family a genial, lively charmer from 1927 by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, It concerns people who resemble real reigning stars of that time: Ethel, Lionel and John Barrymore.
The set and costumes brim with sumptuous style. And director Ted Pappas’ lively and dynamic staging keeps the action and the dialogue swiftly flowing in this charming, lightweight entertainment where David Whalen stands out delightfully as the most deliberately colorful character. You may be expecting many laughs but actually the script has very few, more focusing on affectionate portrayals of special people in the throes of minor crises. Director Pappas has everything moving swiftly and energetically, a good choice considering the limited depth of what happens. Essentially the developments relate to three generations of successful New York theatre people. Three of the women seriously ponder abandoning their acting careers. They are the aging Fanny Cavendish who may have to retire, her daughter Julie contemplating marrying a wealthy, successful old beau and Julie’s daughter Gwen who has fallen in love with another equally successful man her age. Added to the action comes swashbuckling Fanny’s son Tony, inevitably in and out of immature, self-created scrapes. Also swirling through are two more actors, Julie’s uncle Herbert and his wife Kitty.
In the course of the three act, 2 and half hours, they thoroughly come alive. Every actor remains convincing and distinctive, although David Whalen as Tony overshadows them all in a role which certainly calls for that exuberant fun. This portrayal adds to Whalen’s already remarkable array of local performances. The cast includes Pittsburgh artists Helena Ruoti, Larry John Meyers and Daryll Heysham in important roles as well as Public Theater regular visitor Ross Bickell who wonderfully conveys Herbert’s foolish side.
Also make sure you read program book notes by Margie Romero giving fascinating and informative background. Think, then, of this not as substantial material but as a special step back into an earlier time when such material could be its own reason for being, not necessarily making profound points, not necessarily deeply moving, but just a fine evening of live, excellently -acted theatre.
The Royal Family continues through Sunday October 31st at Pittsburgh Public Theater 621 Penn Avenue, downtown. 412/ 316 1600 www.ppt.org