In the weeks after Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds died, HBO kept the documentary “Bright Lights” running almost continuously. The sweetly nostalgic film came to mind Friday night when the Guthrie opened its production of “The Royal Family,” for two analogous reasons.
The first is that the film and play each illuminate the squabbling females of an American entertainment dynasty. Each opens with a matriarch planning to go out on tour at an age when such travel is no longer advisable. The second is that, in the Guthrie’s staging of the comedy, bright lights are conspicuously lowered from the ceiling, angled by actors at each other and even aimed directly at the audience.
All the spotlight wrangling is an attempt to make this production of Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman’s 1927 play about the Barrymore family seem less like a realistic period piece and more like a meta-fictional exploration of how all human relationships are merely people acting out in front of each other.
It’s an interesting point for director Rachel Chavkin to drive home, but one that comes at the expense of laughlines and heartstring tugs that are still potently relevant on the pages of this 90-year-old script.
The Guthrie under Joe Dowling presented many straight-ahead renditions of the classics. Chavkin may be trying too hard to insist This Is Not One of Those Passe Productions.
By show’s end, some characters are in contemporary dress and the set is in postmodern tatters. The action gets off to a mostly conventional start, however. It’s 1 p.m. — aka breakfast time — at the swankily overstuffed Manhattan apartment of the Cavendishes, the fictional clan that was immediately recognized by 1920s theatergoers as a sendup of the Barrymores.
Julie Cavendish is the sun around which other members of her crazy family orbit, so it’s appropriate that frequent Guthrie star Michelle O’Neill gives the strongest, most nuanced performance. Tony-winner Elizabeth Franz plays her mother, Fanny, making her Twin Cities debut as a septuagenarian who delivers zingers with a powerful warble.
Throughout their entire careers, all these ladies of the stage have struggled to balance work/life issues. That’s the central — and unfortunately timeless — theme of the play. Fannie boasts of not missing a show for her daughter’s Holy Week birth, while Julie bemoans not marrying a suitor from two decades ago. The series of inciting incidents at the play opening include both the return of Julie’s old beau, and a marriage proposal for Gwen, her 18-year-old daughter on the cusp of stardom. These dilemmas are as contemporary as an essay by Ann Marie Slaughter, or even Melania’s decision to stay in Trump Tower with her son rather than preside over the White House flowers.
But in this staging, both Julie and Gwen’s suitors are portrayed buffoonishly, and Gwen (Victoria Janicki) is too annoying to take seriously. (Janicki and the actor playing Julie’s agent, Oscar, are black, suggesting a sexual dalliance that does have some basis in the script, but would’ve been a career-ending scandal for an actress in 1927.) Both tactics are part of Chavkin’s effort to deconstruct (reconstruct?) “The Royal Family” into a rumination on acting. To be clear, the lighting stunts are much more distracting than the casting. When various characters go into meltdown mode, spotlights either dropped from the rafters, or other cast members hand-direct a beam at whomever is having a moment. In Act III, there’s barely any set it at all, just lighting fixtures on scaffolding.
In New York, Chavkin has become something of an overnight luminary. Last summer, she directed the off-Broadway hit “Hadestown,” the Eurydice myth reimagined as a folk opera, and an inventive earlier musical, “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” which contemporizes “War and Peace,” was just remounted for Broadway. It’s absolutely fantastic that new Guthrie artistic director Joe Haj invited her here. There’s no doubt that Chavkin brilliantly creates new contexts onstage, the question is whether a period piece comedy like “The Royal Family” was the right world to turn upside down.