An inconsistent production that sags tremendously in the first act, Tom Moore’s staging of “The Royal Family” allows the hyperkinetic activity in the Cavendish household to flow rather than explode. The plays of George S. Kaufman often beg for an off-on rhythmic approach — theater created in a blender that’s set to “shred” and then left to settle — yet Moore’s less-frenetic direction allows the 1927 comedy to slowly develop into a “self-awakening” piece that stifles some of the inherent comedy.
Although this story of a celebrated three-generation theater family is rarely staged — there was a Broadway revival in 1976, and Peter Hall mounted it 2½ years ago at London’s Royal Haymarket — directors have tended to let it shine as a star turn. Moore attempts to emphasize the ensemble work, but Marian Seldes, Kate Mulgrew and Daniel Gerroll are never tempered and they often attempt to take control of the stage. (And at one point, a lap dog’s improvised antics on the arm of a chair diverted all attention from Charles Kimbrough). It becomes a case of whose show is this anyway?
The four Cavendishes curiously find themselves at crossroads during the course of “The Royal Family,” set in 1927 for the first act and a year later in the second. Matriarch Fanny (Seldes) has found a vehicle that will take her to new audiences — in Oklahoma City, Toledo and other tertiary Midwest cities. Daughter Julie (Mulgrew) has finally met the man of her dreams in Gilbert Marshall (Richard Cox), though for them to spend time together, she has to forsake the theater and move to Brazil.
Julie’s brother Anthony (Gerroll) has given up on the stage to pursue a career in Hollywood, but after an altercation with a director, he figures Europe is the place to hide and ply his trade. And newlywed Gwen (Melinda Page Hamilton), Julie’s daughter, has offered to stand by her stockbroker husband Perry Stewart (Robert L. Devaney) rather than pursue a budding career on the boards.
Less talented relatives Herbert and Kitty Dean (Charles Kimbrough and Barbara Dirickson), feeling worthy of the attention paid to the Cavendishes but delusional in their capabilities and public demand, represent the other side of the tracks. The Cavendishes aren’t so much artists who find themselves the polar opposite of the business world; they’re repulsed by bad art, bad theater and people who lead “normal” lives.
Play’s salient points, plus a few side ones, have a remarkable timeliness — Hollywood vs. the stage, the effect of the tabloids, artistic career vs. financial stability — and, while no one milks all of the humor potential, many of the jokes are intact.
Seldes plays Fanny with the appropriate stateliness, and her sarcasm and wit retain a considerable sting; she is the only cast member capable of generating laughs with a single word comment, some as simple as “Yes.” Her every move is infused with ambition and surety — more than any other actor onstage, she possesses an unblinking concept of right and wrong, duty and privilege.
Mulgrew’s character, on the other hand, is all over the map. Her rigid jaw pointedly aimed on nearly every sentence, she has an overly mannered speech pattern that ultimately blocks any chance of striking an emotional connection with her family or the audience.
To some degree that’s a key point — Julie is so ingrained in her theatrical training that she only knows how to deliver the lines of real life in an actorly fashion. Several times, though, that doesn’t wash.
“I’m a madwoman in a family of maniacs,” she bellows, suggesting she’s fully capable of processing her family’s maladies. The emotional distance Julie keeps between the real and what’s really important to her — the scripted world — dampers the finale involving her mother. Julie’s resolution with her paramour feels like a given, her early histrionics regarding love and career being just another melodramatic reaction.
Hamilton’s Gwen is the least conflicted of the bunch, and the Kaufman-Edna Ferber script gives her the most logical out, whether she is trying to give up the stage in the first act or climb back on in the second. The suitors, Devaney’s Stewart and Cox’s Marshall, feel so removed from the Cavendish lineage that one has to wonder where the attraction is. Neither actor makes a good case for his character’s presence.
Gerroll, as the Hollywood-to-Europe nomad, benefits from the mixed tone. He’s all fever pitch, and his enthusiasm for, of all things, experimental German theater is so compelling that the idea of an eight-act passion play sounds like a hell of idea. Or at least a better alternative to whatever the other Cavendishes are planning.
Set designer Douglas W. Schmidt and costumer Robert Blackman have supplied “The Royal Family’s” high points. The Cavendish apartment, with a two-story-high ceiling in the living room and flowing staircase in the center of the stage, captures Roaring ’20s elegance with aplomb. Blackman’s dresses and suits are gloriously sophisticated and nuanced sufficiently to establish the hierarchy of the players.
The five dogs, ranging from the tiny Maltese to the two Irish wolfhounds that barge in at the end, come precariously close to being scene stealers. All are excellently trained.