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A CurtainUp Review
The Royal Family
By Elyse Sommer
The first question usually asked about a play from a bygone era is "Does it deal with themes pertinent for today's audiences?" The answer in relation toThe Royal Family currentlyplaying at the Williamstown Theatre Festival is Yes. The George S. Kaufman/Edna Ferber story of a theatrical family modeled after the famous Barrymores deals first and foremost withissues of choice--the choice between easy success and excellence, between love and a career, and between holding on to what's gone and letting go. Fanny Cavendish, the matriarch of the family has never faltered in her dedication to a life in the theater. While she managed to marry and have children, love and family were an extension of her calling. The man she loved was a great actor who died on stage but "not until he'd taken four curtain calls." Her life's calling, and his, was passed on to their children, as heirlooms are passed from generation to generation in other families.
As the play opens, Fanny's determination to once again "be a trooper" is threatened by deteriorating health. The rest of the family is also at a crossroads. Fanny's son Tony, having chosen Hollywood over the stage, acts out his boredom by getting into constant scrapes over women. Daughter Julie who is at the top of her career as a Broadway actress yearns for a less stressful, more fun-filled life. Granddaughter Gwen is torn between her budding theatrical career and her love for a handsome stockbroker.
For audiences hungry for the three-act, beginning-middle-end, large cast theater experience that was once de rigueur, The Royal Family scores on all counts. Marian Seldes personifies the grand dame actress she portrays. The rest of the Cavendish clan and the servants and manager who tend to their needs and keep these various subplots moving are better than competent. The bright-red walls and double staircase serves as the perfect background for the on-and-off-stage theatricality of the Cavendishes and their constantly entering and exiting retinue.
What the play fails to do is to live up to its promotion as a "sidesplitting comedy." To be sure, there's a lot of amusing rushing around and hamming it up by Victor Garbor, but considering the status of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber as members of the much-quoted Algonquin Round Table there's an amazing dirth of memorable witticisms. There ARE a few glimmerings: Herbert Dean, tells his wife Kitty, whose acting talents fall short of the Cavendish standards, that when he married her she was "just an off stage noise."
Young Gwen, when trying to make a case for combining acting and marriage tells her young lover "I can think of dozens of 17th Century actors but not one 17th Century stockbroker." And when she announces that she has chosen marriage as a career, her grandmother disdainfully retorts that "Marriage isn't a career. It's an incident."
On the whole however, the two-and-a-half-hour play has long stretches unbroken by audience laughter. The poignant scenes are far more successful than the comedic elements which, if they ever were hilarious, are only sporadically so today. In the long run what audiences will remember is the scene when Fanny Cavendish painfully comes to terms with the fact that she will probably never act again, and the final picture of a family which for all its self-absorbed zaniness is united in a shared passion.
There are a couple of quotes which I remember putting into Metaphors Dictionary that describe the essence of The Royal Family members. They're by coauthor Edna Ferber, but not from this play:
There are only two kinds of people in the world that really count. One kind's wheat and the other kind's emeralds --So Big.
Seated at Life's Dining Table, with the menu of Morals before you, your eye wanders a bit over the entrée, the hors d'oeuvres, and the things à la though you know that Roast Beef, Medium, is safe and sane, and sure--from foreword to Roast Beef, Medium: The Adventures of Emma McChesney.
© Copyright July 11, 1996 Elyse Sommer Information from this site may not be reproduced in print or online without specific permission from firstname.lastname@example.org
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