One minute into an interview with director Doug Hughes, a stage manager drags him back to the rehearsal room. Hughes returns, but a designer then plucks him from his seat, demanding he attend a costume fitting. Just as he resettles again, the lead actor emerges in silk robe and striped pajamas, desiring approval. A few more cast and crew members—many of them lugging luxurious props—waylay him, but Hughes politely puts them off. Only toward the interview’s end does he allow himself the distraction of two gorgeous, leggy females. As they nuzzle his chest, he grins at them, scratches their ears, and explains that they play police dogs in the third act of The Royal Family, the Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of the George S. Kaufman/Edna Ferber comedy that begins previews September 15.
With its ample entrances, exits, dogs, costumes, and low-grade commotion, one might mistake our interview for a scene from the play itself (though I’m delighted to report that Hughes treats the press far more kindly than the play’s characters do). Written in 1927, The Royal Family is a luscious and unsentimental love letter to those poor souls devoted to the stage. It follows three generations of the Cavendish family, a species of Broadway aristocracy loosely based on the Barrymores. The plot centers on the littlest Cavendish, Gwen (Kelli Barrett), who considers forsaking the theater for life as a society wife. Her mother, Julie (Jan Maxwell), entertains similar fantasies. Meanwhile, grandmother Fanny (Rosemary Harris) longs for one more road show; the open road also appeals to her swashbuckling son, Tony (Reg Rogers), though he’ll have to dodge reporters and breach-of-promise suits to get there. Uncles, aunts, producers, paramours, and those darn dogs complicate the picture.
Amid this pandemonium, Hughes smiles benignly, appearing at once rumpled and unruffled. Though he might benefit from the attentions of a hairbrush and a clothes iron, he has the play well in hand. During a morning rehearsal, he’d fine-tuned the show’s opening scene—a bustle of phone calls, doorbells, flower deliveries, telegrams, and breakfast trays. He has that aptitude for comedy which seems to owe as much to the structural engineer or the air traffic controller. During a telephone speech, he had Caroline Stefanie Clay, who plays a servant, alter her intonation on a single word. Suddenly, that speech made everyone giggle. He instructed David Greenspan, who plays another servant, to quicken his blocking. Suddenly, this, too, was riotous.
As one might expect in a play that relegates the wondrous Greenspan to a servant’s role, the cast is extraordinary. In addition to those playing the Cavendishes, Larry Pine appears as a South American millionaire, Tony Roberts as a Broadway producer, John Glover as a disreputable uncle, and Ana Gasteyer as his shrewish wife. Hughes hand-picked this varied cast, having first persuaded Harris to be Fanny. He recruited her fellow actors from previous working relationships: He’d teamed with Maxwell in a workshop of a musical; he’d directed Pine 30 years ago; Roberts had appeared onstage with Hughes’s father, Barnard Hughes. He seemed to have a relationship with all of the members of his desired cast. Eventually, the solicitous phone calls and mailed scripts resulted in a disparate dramatis personae. As Hughes explains, “We did really try to assemble a band of gypsies, from a whole variety of traditions, who might rally around the idea of this play.”
Shoving so many acting styles into the same production seems a signal challenge for a director. One is unlikely to confuse the histrionic methods—in all cases considerable—of Gasteyer and Harris or Greenspan and Pine. Yet Hughes relies on “a genetic code for this kind of comedy that’s in a lot of American actors’ blood,” and, apparently, in Harris’s, too. He’s pleased to see his motley cast indeed rallying around the script, evoking its comedy and pathos. “For me,” says Hughes, “this play has everything to do with life. I live in the theater, and the dilemmas of these people are very genuine dilemmas.”
Hughes speaks with some authority. Like the characters in The Royal Family, he, too, hails from an acting dynasty. The son of actors Barnard Hughes and Helen Stenborg, he’s also the brother of actress Laura Hughes. (Similarly, leading lady Harris is the mother of actress Jennifer Ehle; her co-star Maxwell is the sister of playwright-director Richard Maxwell.) In a Times interview several years so, Hughes joked that “maybe my greatest contribution to the theater is my decision not to act.” He described becoming a director as an exercise in Oedipal revenge.
For Hughes, then, The Royal Family may serve as both labor of love and reprisal, comedy as acute psychodrama. Given his ancestry and upbringing, he must find particular poignancy in the sections of the play that discuss the unhappy balance between artistic life and family life, between career and love. Hughes says of an actor’s vocation: “You respond to the calling with the sacrifice of so many other things. Is it worth it? Should family life, married life, contemplative life be given up for the dubious satisfaction of getting on the stage?” He isn’t always certain: “My father was not present when I was born. He was not present when my sister was born. When I was born, he was in Dallas on a national tour; when my sister was born, he was playing a matinee in Boston of a show that was coming in to Broadway.” And yet it was watching his parents go off to the theater every night and meeting them in triumph at the stage door that inculcated within him an eventual career in the theater and an affection for Kaufman and Ferber’s script.
The Royal Family does not ignore the theater’s frivolities and spitefulness, it does not dismiss the price that art exacts, and it does not, as critic Alexander Woollcott wrongly insisted, “shine with the ancient and untarnished glamour of the stage.” Instead, the play shows the theater as a cruel and tender place, one you’d leave instantly—provided anywhere else was better. For lack of that, the show must go on. As Fanny proclaims, and as Hughes’s parents might have, “Earthquakes and cyclones and fire and flood, and somehow you still give the show. I know it says in the contract that you stop for ‘acts of God,’ but I can’t remember that I ever did.”