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Ferber and Kaufman: Jewish Playwrights, Family Creators

The 1920s Algonquin Round Table of New York wits seems to have left little behind of permanent value, apart from a load of tired put-downs and other wisecracks. Yet the works of two members, George S. Kaufman (1889-1961), from a Pittsburgh Jewish family, and his writing colleague Edna Ferber (1885 – 1968) born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, of Hungarian Jewish descent, continue to enjoy stage revivals.

On October 8, a major Broadway revival opened of Kaufman and Ferber’s 1927 comedy “The Royal Family” a sardonic dig at theatre families like the Barrymores. The two authors, doubtless ill at ease in the hoity-toity Manhattanite circles which they frequented, created their own “in crowd” for this play, in the form of a family circle of stage-stuck hams, just as in 1936 Kaufman would later collaborate with Moss Hart in “You Can’t Take It With You” to create yet another zany family unit.

I well recall seeing the previous Broadway revival of “The Royal Family” in 1976, starring an amazing array of stage-savvy veteran actors, including George Grizzard, Eva Le Gallienne, Rosetta LeNoire, Joseph Maher, and especially Sam Levene as the garlicky family adviser Oscar Wolfe. Levene, the original Nathan Detroit in “Guys and Dolls” and Al Lewis in Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys,” added a delightfully truculent ethnic flavor to his role, whereas Tony Roberts, the veteran Jewish actor playing Oscar Wolfe in the current revival, has coyly claimed in a recent interview that he has no idea whether his character is Jewish or not.

Despite this, and a cast which includes actors like Ana Gasteyer, better known for their TV work than for being Broadway babies, benevolent reviews suggest that Kaufman and Ferber’s construction of an “in crowd,” even de-ethnicized and cast from outside the theatre world, is still a valid vehicle today.

Watch below as a patently nervous, even tic-ridden George S. Kaufman makes a 1953 panel TV show appearance.

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