Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Fountain of Youth
By Josh R
If you believe what you see on television — particularly during commercial breaks — you might be inclined to think that growing older is just one great big piece of heart-smart, low-cholesterol cake. Age is Just a Number and/or a State of Mind, and with the right battery of hormones and a fridge chock full of Activia, late middle-age can be one long, soft-focus stroll along the beach.
Perhaps it’s a sign of the callowness and callousness of youth, but I’ve always taken a rather dim view of aging — no matter what spin Madison Avenue puts on the process of growing older, the inescapable truth is that time takes its toll on every traveler. With age comes decay — the body weakens, senses diminish, abilities fall by the wayside and we become shadows of our former selves.
Rosemary Harris, the Tony Award-winning actress currently starring in Manhattan Theatre Club’s well-presented revival of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s decidedly dated comedy The Royal Family, is 82 years of age. If this venerated veteran of the boards doesn’t really seem to register the implications of what’s printed on her birth certificate, it doesn’t appear that Father Time is paying much attention either. Whatever Faustian bargain she and fellow octogenarian Angela Lansbury — who has proved equally adept in turning back the clock — have struck to remain at the height of their powers well into their golden years is between them and their confessors. Regardless of whether or not they’ve made a deal with the devil to remain in peak form, the experience of seeing them light up Broadway is nothing short of heavenly.
The play itself, it must be noted, shows its age a bit more conspicuously than its leading lady. Examining the trials and tribulations of a theatrical dynasty none-too-loosely modeled on the Barrymores, it’s the sort of featherweight concoction that probably worked on the same level as You Can’t Take It With You or Arsenic and Old Lace for Depression Era audiences — rose-tinged escapism involving zany characters, slapstick, slamming doors and ludicrous plot devices, blissfully unencumbered by anything resembling dramatic substance. What probably seemed like giddy, spontaneous fun to audiences of yesteryear feels more than slightly labored in a contemporary context. With its rusty mechanics and somewhat stilted dialogue, the text seems so careworn that the experience of hearing it aloud is occasionally like leafing through the pages of a yellowed newspaper that disintegrates upon contact. It’s a testament to the tact and skill of director Doug Hughes that the production moves at a reasonably good pace (there are a few passages that no amount of talent could keep from dragging), and locates the laughs where they still exist and mines them for full impact. Not all octogenarians are as spry as Ms. Harris; The play premiered on Broadway in 1927, which was also the year of her birth. If it doesn’t bear the weight of its 82 years as lightly as she does, it still has its share of incidental pleasures, not the least of which are its performances.
From the moment Ms. Harris steps into the spotlight as Fanny Cavendish, the family matriarch who views the acting profession as something akin to a higher calling, time doesn’t just stand still — it seems to be working in reverse. The performance is so fresh and vibrant that, at times, the actress seems to radiate the very glow of youth, and when, as Fanny, she speaks of her love of the stage, there’s more than just a spirit of nostalgia at work; it’s as if an entire legacy of theatrical experience has been brought to vivid and resplendent life before your eyes. With her elegant self-possession and crystalline delivery, Ms. Harris is a performer in the classic tradition of the Helen Hayeses, Ina Claires and Katharine Cornells; you don’t have to read her Playbill bio (littered with Shakespeares, Shaws, Pinters and Cowards) to know that she’s been there and done that, and probably better than just about anyone else — the evidence is right there in front of you.
More than a bit of that majestic glow rubs off on Jan Maxwell, the protean actress who plays Fanny’s daughter Julie, a celebrated star who would handle her designated role as caretaker to a family of madcaps a bit more fluently if she weren’t so scattershot herself. Given how on point Ms. Harris is, it would be perfectly understandable if the actress playing Julie (the role Ms. Harris herself played in the acclaimed 1976 Broadway revival) didn’t register as much more than a daughter living in her mother’s shadow. With her droll mastery of period style, Ms. Maxwell not only avoids that trap, but brings to the role the kind of star quality that dispels any doubt that Julie can and should exist as a legend in her own right. She and Ms. Harris complement each other beautifully, and when Julie lets her composure fall by the wayside at the end of the second act and becomes unglued, Maxwell artfully whips her performance up to the level of screwball tour-de-force.
If none of the other performers manage to reach such blissful heights of fever-pitched hysteria, they are all more than game. As the rakish matinee idol Tony, Reg Rogers is more Marx Brothers than John Barrymore — it’s the rare instance of a performance that could perhaps benefit from a bit more cultured affectation – but his full-out manic energy is very, very funny. Although his delivery seems a bit wispy for the role of the preening has-been uncle, John Glover has certainly mastered the art of the grand theatrical gesture — as his clueless, classless wife, Ana Gasteyer gets her laughs, even though her performance style is exaggerated to the point that it tends to devolve into a catalog of facial tics (it’s the kind of caricature that would seem more at home in an SNL sketch). No one else in the cast makes as strong an impression, although they are a conscientious bunch of troupers, and provide the two leading ladies with plenty of material to play off of.
It’s Harris and Maxwell who make The Royal Family an essential ticket, even if the play itself seems to be stuck in a bit of a time warp. If you haven’t had the pleasure of witnessing Ms. Harris in her natural habitat prior to now, you’d better get a move on. As unchivalrous as it may be to point out, she isn’t getting any younger — then again, if The Royal Family is any indication, she may well remain blithely indifferent to that fact well into the next decade of her career. Even if time doesn’t really stand still, a great talent can create the illusion that it does.