The Barrymores Are Here

Given the stage name of Cavendish and tagged as royalty in the play, “The Royal Family”, the famed, theatrical Barrymores provided fodder for authors George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. The Duluth Playhouse resurrects their 1927 comedy which will run Thursdays through Sundays from now to June 10.

This story portrays generations of a family of actors, from their doyenne, Fanny, to her 2 month-old grandson. A close knit bunch, they feud, cajole, help each other out of scrapes, and want the best for each other.

Tony, Fanny’s son and a parody of John Barrymore, is played with bombast and panache by Lee Gundersheimer. He reminds me greatly of my Milwaukee cousin, Bobby, who in turn, reminds me of ‘the Fonz’. It seems Tony has fled Hollywood for the Cavendish penthouse in New York to avoid legal action regarding an altercation with his film director. He also is running from Zada Zaedak (sp?) who’s pursuing him for breach of promise. A few asides concerning her Polish roots will either fly for you or won’t. Tony’s on the lamb wanting to exit the US by boarding the steamship, Aquitania.

Julie Cavendish (Ethel Barrymore) is Fanny’s daughter.  An actress of great renown, she is also everyone’s caretaker; in Tony’s case, she’s taken it upon herself to find him a passport. Christa Schulz plays Julie with grace.

The entire cast does well for themselves. Jennie Ross plays love-stricken teenage granddaughter, Gwen. Paul Brissett is Fanny’s bro, Herbert Dean, who shills for crappy scripts; Julie MacIver Venhuizen, his conniving wife, Kitty. Kirby Wood and Kay Rieck are hop-to, on-the-spot butler and maid. John Schmidt is Julie’s smouldering, long-waiting love, perhaps in imitation of Winston Churchill’s love for Ethel Barrymore.

But there are two in the cast who especially touch us. Sharon Salo plays Fanny, aging, ultimate actress and Cavendish matriarch. She never misses a nuance as a mother and grandmother who has completely dedicated her life to theater and who expects her family to commit also. Salo first acted in Hibbing, but has not been onstage since the 1970’s. Recently she decided to take acting classes,“The Royal Family” marking her return to the stage. She’s a natural as Fanny and the hub of the story.

Jack Setterlund plays Oscar, her long time manager. Setterlund does not miss a beat as the family’s dear Rock of Gibralter. He’s there not only to dish up money, but to fend for everyone.

The set is a polished, posh New York apartment. The costumes are vintage 1920’s (a raccoon coat) and terrific vintage knock-offs. A few times the dialogue was a little hurried and hard to understand, but by opening night, those few moments should be perfected. If you go into the play knowing it’s about the famed Barrymores, you’ll be a step ahead.