The Royal Family, Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Like latter-day descendant The Royal Tenenbaums, this 1927 play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber depicts a brood of talented oddballs in their tony New York digs, struggling with how special they are. The Cavendish clan, however, is a thinly disguised version of the theatrical Barrymore dynasty--one many know now only through latter-day descendant Drew. This real-life dimension, the zinger-rich script's poison-pen affection, and a thoroughly excellent production make Steppenwolf's Royal Family smashing light entertainment; still, as with the gifted Wes Anderson's recent movie, you kind of wonder why anyone's dressing up such middling stuff.
Under Frank Galati's deceptively loose direction, the show's talky three hours fly by. James Schuette's opulent wood-paneled set, complete with sweeping wraparound staircases, is a swashbuckler's wet dream, and Mara Blumenfeld's costumes are superb. The cast, composed largely of old hands, chew miles of scenery as one by one the Cavendishes strive, with drolly self-defeating melodrama, to "forsake the stage." As rambunctious movie star Tony, David New doesn't really evoke the Great Profile, but his energy and charisma are a tonic, and verisimilitude aside he delivers an accomplished portrayal. As grande dame Fanny--based on the grandmother, 19th-century comedienne Louise Drew--Lois Smith is adorably cantankerous. Playing Ethel stand-in Julie, Amy Morton is the picture of willowy Jazz Age elegance, and B.J. Jones and Rondi Reed offer hilarious support. Ensemble work this strong and warmly self-parodic just might be its own justification.