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Guthrie's 'Royal Family' doesn't quite rule the stage

Michelle O'Neill (Julie Cavendish) and Shawn Hamilton (Oscar Wolfe).

Michelle O'Neill (Julie Cavendish) and Shawn Hamilton (Oscar Wolfe). Heidi Bohnenkamp, 2017

On the Guthrie Theater’s McGuire Proscenium Stage, the fictionalized royal family of King Henry II (The Lion in Winter) have made way for the fictionalized Royal Family of John and Ethel Barrymore. Though the setting is several centuries more recent, Royal Family is an older play, and makes more demands on the audience.

Guthrie Theater
$34-$67

One of those demands is sheer time: the three-act play runs nearly three hours, and portions of the sprawling first two acts drag. There’s a big cast of characters to meet, and every one of them is... well, a real character. The 1927 play was written by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, who swore they didn’t base the story on the famous Barrymore family, but later admitted (in the words of Ferber) “we succeeded in convincing no one, including possibly ourselves.”

The matriarch of the play’s “Cavendish” family is Fanny (Elizabeth Franz), an actor who’s showing her age but plans to die on the boards like her husband did. Her son Tony (Matthew Saldívar) is a swashbuckling film star who’s wildly popular — unlike his uncle Herbert (Bill McCallum), whose efforts at playwriting are going nowhere. The glue of the family is the hardworking Julie (Michelle O’Neill), a well-respected stage star wondering whether the grass might be greener on the other side of the footlights for both herself and her ingenue daughter Gwen (Victoria Janicki).

Director Rachel Chavkin unsubtly suggests that all the world’s a stage for this family, whose grand apartment is realized by set designer Marte Johanne Ekhougen with onstage spotlights that are manipulated to show the family members to best effect as they swan about. In the third act, the set changes: we’re still in the apartment, but the walls have fallen away to reveal towering shelves cluttered with dusty props. Is it Cavendish family storage, or a view backstage? The difference, this production suggests, is immaterial.

The set fills the vast space, yet somehow the actors struggle to. Chavkin’s cast are perfectly professional, but these characters are stars, and we just don’t see that. The roles of Fanny and Tony, for example, should be showpieces, but Franz and Saldívar often feel like they’re just going through the play’s deliberate paces. The comic supporting characters of Herbert and his wife Kitty (Angela Timberman) are simply tiresome until they perk up in the third act — as does the whole show, which is almost too little, too late.

O’Neill’s Julie is practical and empathetic: her flair for the dramatic quickly dissipates after a grand entrance, and it’s easy to understand why she’s tempted by a suitor (Robert O. Berdahl) who offers to marry her and take her far away from her demanding career. For most of the show, Janicki is the only one who really seems to be enjoying life as a Cavendish.

By the end of the production, time itself seems to collapse, with the cast costumed (by Brenda Abbandandolo) in anachronistic garb that suggests this family and their love for the stage will carry on into the future as they have for generations. We can only hope they manage to remember why this is the life they’ve chosen.

IF YOU GO:

Royal Family
Guthrie Theater
818 S. Second St., Minneapolis 
Through March 19; 612-377-2224