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Pulled in Two Directions

Date: Sep 30, 2009


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This fall on Broadway, you can enjoy Doug Hughes’ production of The Royal Anna. No… that’s not right. He’s directing Oleanna’s Family. Wait. That’s wrong, too.

Confusion is understandable, because Doug Hughes is the rare director with two Broadway plays opening at the same time. On October 8, Manhattan Theatre Club officially launches his production of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s classic farce The Royal Family. Just three days later, he premieres his take on Oleanna, David Mamet’s incendiary drama about a female college student who accuses her professor of sexual harassment. (The latter production, starring Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles, debuted in Los Angeles this summer, though rehearsals have continued in New York.)

Hughes isn’t fazed by helming two shows at once. “I’m a food-from-many-lands type of guy, not a steady diet person,” he says.

In some ways, the plays aren’t tapping the same parts of his brain. The Royal Family, about a quirky clan of American actors, is a highly physical three-act comedy with a sixteen-person cast. Oleanna, on the other hand, has one act and two actors. It’s as taut and intense as The Royal Family is broad and madcap. “There’s something of the battlefield commander in doing The Royal Family,” Hughes says. “There’s a counselor aspect to the job in Oleanna.”

He adds that an Oleanna rehearsal might consist of nothing but text work with a single actor, while mapping out The Royal Family requires a large, focused team. “Little things must go perfectly if big things are going to occur,” he says. “Things can go completely awry if a teacup is not set properly, or if a door is not slammed at precisely the right time. Every member of the company has an obligation to the details.”

Still, Hughes insists the plays are not so different. “They’re both beautifully constructed, and they have an almost metric precision about language,” he says. “And they’re both about the American struggle to move on and do well.”

They also have their roots in scandal.

When they wrote The Royal Family in 1927, Kaufman and Ferber based their characters on the famous Barrymores, and Ethel Barrymore told the press she was offended by the jabs at her expense. Oleanna, meanwhile, premiered Off Broadway in 1992, just one year after Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment at his Senate confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court. Mamet’s play was widely understood as a response to the controversy.

In 2009, Hughes wants to think bigger. He says, “With The Royal Family, I don’t think the phenomenon of the Barrymores as an acting dynasty is sufficiently potent in the culture now to compel people to see a play. Edna Ferber and George Kaufman wrote something that has to do with balancing the love we have for our work and the love we have for our family.”

He adds, “Oleanna isn’t and wasn’t an ‘issue’ play. It has lots to say about power and the difficulty of creating genuine communication.”

Ultimately, Hughes wants both productions to leave the audience thinking about these larger ideas, which is why he directs the comedy and the drama, the giant ensemble and the two-person cast, toward the same goal. “Each process is a matter of thinking about how we get from one place to another,” he says. “You go back to that basic of ‘What do the characters want, and what do they do to get it?’ If that isn’t clear, then nothing else matters.”

Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor.