Friday, October 02, 2009

The Barrymore Dynasty - The Royal Family & Whip It - Stage and Film Review

The Royal Family - Samuel J. Friedman Theatre - Broadway - New York City, NY - *** (out of 5 stars)
Written by George S. Kaufman & Edna Ferber, Directed by Doug Hughes
Currently in previews, Opens Oct. 8th 2009, Closes Nov. 29th 2009

Whip It = B+
Written by Shauna Cross based on her novel, Directed by Drew Barrymore
Opens Oct. 2nd 2009

The Royal Family, a play that debuted on Broadway in 1927 by Edna Ferber (Show Boat, Giant) and George S. Kaufman (The Man Who Came To Dinner) is a thinly veiled comedy about the Barrymore acting dynasty, circa 1927. While the play may be about the Cavendish family of actors, it was really a satire on John Barrymore and sister Ethel Barrymore and their prima donna ways. The Manhattan Theatre Company is now presenting a luxurious revival on Broadway (at the former Biltmore Theatre which is next to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre... too bad that one was booked, it would have be delicious irony to perform the Barrymore parody there!).

Decades later, descendent Drew Barrymore (down from John Barrymore's family line) has thoroughly made herself an A-list actor in Hollywood after a comeback from being a child star and the requisite tumultuous teenage years that follow. Now, Drew Barrymore has directed her first film, a fun girl power movie that combines a feelgood underdog Hollywood gleam with an indie quirky charm (which has become its own movie style category in recent years (500 Days of Summer, Juno, Little Miss Sunshine etc. etc.))

The Royal Family is an enjoyable charming comedy about manners, actors and living an oblivious high life and the play apparently never really hid its parody template of the Barrymore acting dynasty. Tony Cavendish is a womanizing drinker whose whole life is about play (apparently much like John Barrymore). Julie Cavendish, Tony's sister, is the diva (and a ruse for Ethel Barrymore), Fanny Cavendish is the regal legendary head of the actors family who isn't about to quit the game.

The new production by the MTC is definitely luxurious, with an astounding set by John Lee Beatty, with lots of layers for the actors to play around with and has a nice variety of entrances and exits. The set actually feels like a real mansion with a plausible plan and allows the characters to run amuck with physical comedy on the playful set.

The cast is superb with a bemused Rosemary Harris (Spider-Man, above) leading the pact as Fanny (and devastating in the final scene), Jan Maxwell as Julie, a deliciously playful Reg Rogers as Tony, John Glover (Smallville) as Herbert Dean (Fanny's brother, below), Ana Gasteyer (SNL, below) as Kitty Dean (Herbert's wife) and Tony Roberts (Xanadu) as Oscar Wolfe, the family's manager.

Kelli Barrett as Gwen Cavendish (Julie's daughter, above with Harris and Maxwell) and Freddy Arsenault as Perry Stewart (Gwen's man) are wonders in their Broadway debuts. While David Greenspan makes the most of his role as servant Jo and creates a hilarious side character that should be a main.

While the actors are mostly incredibly winning (Jan Maxwell, while acts up a storm as a prima dona, feels too smart and poised to truly play the diva in a slight bit of miscasting, while Tony Roberts doesn't really make his mark amongst a cast of zanier actors), the play itself is still extremely mild and tame, and feels like a historic relic from 1927, which it is. In this day and age of TMZ and US Weekly, the tantrums and outbursts from actors is expected and barely noteworthy anymore, so a play in which its comedy relies on the SHOCKING behavior of a family of actors becomes hardly shocking anymore, and at this point, seems merely quaint and antiquated.

It thus leaves the entire show feeling like a cute enjoyable afternoon of entertainment that needs to be accompanied with tea and finger sandwiches but while I appreciate the exquisite revival production, I just wish the MTC could spend more of its energies on furthering the future of theatre (like it did with Pulitzer winner Ruined this year) instead of relying on the past.

Whip It marks Drew Barrymore's first time directing and she wonderfully balances a quirky comedy with enough Hollywood happiness without losing any of the independent charms or becoming overly precious.

Whip It takes the age old story of outcast girl named Bliss (Ellen Page) forced by mom (Marcia Gay Harden) to enter beauty pageants, who secretly rebels and joins a roller derby team. Basic outcast/underdog story built in with moments of independence power/girl power, family drama, reconciliation, beauty pageant comedic disasters and well, roller girls.

Drew Barrymore assembles the current go-to-it-girls to form the Hurl Scouts, the underdog team in the ragtag league that runs on the outskirts of big city Austin. With Barrymore herself playing Barrymore on skates, she lets Kristen Wiig (Extract, Adventureland, SNL etc. etc. etc. And that's just this year alone) takes over the lead as the voice of the women's team, and Wiig manages to give heart and depth as the leader of the roller pack.

And as Bliss, it-Indie girl Ellen Page again takes a Juno role but gives the character hutzpah and a spine without losing the underdog facility. Pairing her with Michael Cera's Arrested Development partner Alia Shawkat as her best friend just seems so natural and continues the trend of adding one part AD with one part Juno, add in Wiig, Ari Graynor and a rapper (this time Eve) and an up-and-coming indie rock singer (this time Landon Pigg playing aloof and indie rock perfectly) and you have the makings of a perfect indie-"surprise breakout" movie.

With the always terrific Daniel Stern (where have you been lately?!) and Gay Harden playing Page's parents, a wonderfully funny Andrew Wilson (yes, the third Wilson brother) playing Razor, the teams less-than-impressed coach, and a slimy Jimmy Fallon in a small part as the roller derby announcer, Barrymore assembled a great team to back her up.

Then there's Juliette Lewis, playing snarky Juliette Lewis at her best, as the biggest opponent to the Hurl Scouts and Page's chief rival. Lewis relishes in playing evil and toying with our protagonist but holds it just back enough to keep her character at bay, since in the end, she ultimately doesn't become the chief enemy (because you know, it's Bliss that is her own worst enemy as the lesson of the day gets spelled out).

It's not a genius film, but it surprised me by never falling too far into the indie-too-cool-for-school style or the Hollywood hokeyness. There was nothing brand new in the direction, but Drew Barrymore makes a solid directing debut with a confident film that manages to balance a rocking soundtrack over a very fun film. There's definite promise in the future of Barrymore, the director.

Vance at


Esther said...

Wow, this is probably the only blog post that will ever combine reviews of The Royal Family and Whip It! Were you going for a Barrymore theme? ;-)

Anonymous said...

Drew Barrymore did an awesome job directing Whip It... tons of fun to watch -- made me want to go watch roller derby and drink cheap beer