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A CurtainUp Review
The Royal Family
Why is it that plays about theatre people are more dramatic than plays about movie stars? Maybe because stage actors have to project, to be larger than life, to play at life in the way we all would sometimes like to play at it. Or, as Fanny Cavendish tells her son Tony, "Stay on the stage where you belong and you wouldn't get mixed up with all that riff-raff."
Tom Moore compresses the essence of that outsize passion in his vivid glamorous revival of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's The Royal Family and then releases it like a flaming sunset on the stage of the Ahmanson Theatre. It's no coincidence that the glorious shimmering costumes are designed by Robert Blackman who, among numerous other credits, also designs costumes for Star Trek.
The year is 1927 and the place is the Cavendish family's soaring New York duplex, complete with balcony. What's a Juliet without a balcony? The Cavendishes are "inspired", as they say, by the Barrymores. In some cases the shoe fits better than others. Tony Cavendish with his pencil-thin moustache and dashing fedora is a dead ringer for the greatest Hamlet of his day and heartbreaking matinee idol, John Barrymore. Fanny Cavendish, the matriarch, is drawn from John's sister Ethel and their grandmother Louisa Drew who ran her own theatre in Philadelphia. Other family members are more or less fictionalized. There's Fanny's obtuse and less famous brother Herbert Dean; his jealous voluptuous wife Kitty; Fanny's beautiful daughter, Julie, a major star, and Julie's beautiful daughter, Gwen, just entering the firmament. We have Julie's once and future lover Gilbert Marshall, now an emerald entrepreneur with an estancia in Argentina, and Gwen's fiancée, stock broker Perry Stewart, starched and handsome as an Arrow Shirt ad. And far from least, the Cavendishes' devotedly manipulative manager and producer, Oscar Wolfe.
Moore lovingly curves the three generations of Cavendish women into stage sculptures as they twine their arms around each other, extol romance and marriage, and expose their real passion: the theatre. One of the beauties of this production is the subtlety with which the grand and imperious Marion Seldes, as Fanny, and husky-voiced commanding Irish beauty Kate Mulgrew, as Julie, drop in and out of theatrical personas. It's in the way their voices fall as they express their innermost feelings without for a moment losing the spotlight.
Not everything works. Tony's fencing scene with the trainer McDermott (Bobby C. King) could be faster and there's no chemistry in the initial meeting between Julie and Gil Marshall (Richard Cox). However, it's not so much what happens in these peoples' lives, though the actor's world has never been better detailed, derided and celebrated than in this slyly hilarious portrait by Kaufman and Ferber. It's how they live them that's the fascinating core of this show and, with a cast as impeccable as this, you perceive why an actor feels the importance of giving full value to every little thing.
Marion Seldes has two unforgettable set pieces. The first, a monologue, begins, "It's everything. It's work and play and meat and drink" and then depicts what you get when you give up amusing parties to be in a play, every incident beginning in the stuffy dressing room where you smear paint on your face to the entrance, "going on, going on, going on." The second is pure Tom Moore and Marion Seldes, a curtain speech in which she recreates in mime the actress's life on the stage.
Seldes and Mulgrew are ably supported by Daniel Gerroll who projects an amazing resemblance to John Barrymore, playing Tony Cavendish as a charismatic Peter Pan; Charles Kimbrough and Barbara Dirickson, funnily, beautifully balanced as Herbert and Kitty Dean; Ella English as Della, the maid, who delights in working for this theatre family enough to put up with their constant demands; Alan Mandell who gives the butler Jo the air of a family retainer who's playing an actor playing a butler; and George S. Irving as Oscar Wolfe, Broadway-bred.
This satirical theatrical ode still has a heart. That heart not only beats, it throbs!
Editor's Note: Marian Seldes played Fanny Cavendish at the Williamstown Theatre Festival during the summer of 1996, though the production was differently cast and that review was not quite as glowing. To read that review, go here
A 2002 revival was reviewed by our London critic and may be read by clicking here
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