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The Royal Family

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There's a line from Queen Christina in which Greta Garbo, playing the Swedish monarch, asks: "Is it possible to feel nostalgia for a place one has never seen?"

I always get the same pang of illogical longing at a play by George S. Kaufman. Nothing is more evocative to me of Manhattan in the Jazz Age than a comedy by Kaufman, with maybe some Cole Porter tinkling in the background. And since New York's Jazz Age is my idea of heaven, I sit in my seat pining away.

That evocation does not necessarily rise from the play's content; Kaufman, usually writing with Moss Hart, didn't specialize in chronicling the lives of New York's glittering elite. His plays call to mind a time on Broadway (and by extension New York) when entertainment was being created specifically for a literate and culturally sophisticated audience ... and really, that sort of world hasn't been seen since the '20s.

But every now and again Kaufman did set his sights on Manhattan's moneyed gentry. One example, written with Edna Ferber, is The Royal Family, which opens the new season at Pittsburgh Public Theatre.

A thinly veiled take on the crazy antics of American's famed clan of actors, John, Lionel and Ethel Barrymore, The Royal Family is really a love letter to the theater. The Cavendishes are the crowned heads of Broadway, and Kaufman &Ferber have a ball putting on stage their surreal, bombastic world filled with huge artistic egos unburdened by commonplace restraint. In a way, The Royal Family sets the stage for Kaufman and Hart's later Pulitzer-winner, You Can't Take It With You, also about a family of eccentrics and the normal people who love them.

Director Ted Pappas aims straight for the heart with this overtly sentimental production. The focus falls fully on the female side of the Cavendish family, and with strong performances by Jenny Sterlin, Helena Ruoti and Lindsey Kyler as grandmother, mother and daughter, this version is all about love, love, love.

That's a perfectly acceptable reading, of course. But it treats the characters of the two brothers and family's manager, humorously played by Ross Bickel, David Whalen and Larry John Meyers, as quirky interruptions. A little bit of bitter among all that froth wouldn't have gone amiss.

But it's still an enjoyable production of a script written by a man who built his plays as soundly as a battleship. I miss those days.

 

The Royal Family continues through Oct. 31. Pittsburgh Public Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-316-1600 or www.ppt.org

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