Actors are supposed to be temperamental, but a truly grand onstage tantrum is hard to find. There's a beauty of one now in "The Royal Family," the classic 1927 comedy that George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber wrote about three generations of a chaotic and madly gifted New York acting dynasty.
In fact, there are many pleasures in Doug Hughes' sumptuous joy of an old-fashoned revival, including a keepsake performance by the legendary Rosemary Harris as the aging matriarch of the Cavendish (think Barrymore) family.
But that tantrum is the one in which Jan Maxwell lets loose in the second of the evening's three acts. Until then, this marvelous actress has portrayed Julie, the family's star breadwinner, as a supremely capable and glamorous mother, sister and daughter who, somehow, still finds time to remember the inbred value of a theatrical entrance. When she unravels, however, she is not just an actress in a screwball flapper farce. Instead, she's a multitasking real woman cracking, complete with maniacal laugh, under a lifetime of choices between love and work.
In fact, Hughes ("Doubt") clearly knows that comedy is serious business. For all the gorgeous bustle of the luxurious 16-member cast, John Lee Beatty's period-luxe set and Catherine Zuber's impeccable costumes, this production both loves the life-upon-the-wicked-stage romance of the theater and knows the demands of its insularity. Tony Roberts, whom I saw at a preview before he was stricken with an apparent seizure, makes a tenderhearted, canny manager. Reg Rogers is a bit more like an incorrigible puppy than the dashing rogue and heartthrob of the family. Ana Gasteyer and John Glover, as the seedier relatives, seem more Munster than Cavendish. But Kelli Barrett admirably avoids every ingenue pitfall as the family's next star, torn between being onstage and having a "normal life."
Finally, there is the thrill of seeing Harris, who had the role of Julie in 1975, portray the ailing, stage-enamored star of a mother with a ravishing sense of playfulness. The Manhattan Theatre Club has had its ups and downs in its Broadway venue. This one is up.
What "The Royal Family"
Where Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.
Info $57-$97: 212-239-6200; telecharge.com
Bottom line A royal inside-theater delight