A mere seven decades after its arrival on Broadway, “The Royal Family” remains an affectionate nod to the American theater’s golden age. Yet the new McCarter Theater production is uncomfortably miscast, and as staged, the proper balance of antic behavior and sentimentality is not clearly focused.
The George S. Kaufman-Edna Ferber comedy is a brilliantly conceived theatrical entertainment that has little to do with plot and a great deal to do with style. The nostalgic saga eavesdrops upon a few vital hours in the delightfully turbulent lives of the celebrated Cavendish acting family, who bear more than a passing resemblance to the real-life aristocratic Barrymore clan.
The grand dame is Fanny Cavendish (Sada Thompson), a legendary actress determined to take to the road again despite old age and failing health. Daughter Julia (Sara Botsford) is a glamorous Broadway star pondering marriage to a stuffy tycoon, and son Tony (John Vickery) is a flamboyant, eccentric film star who has left the boards for the silver screen and is fleeing from his most recent breach-of-promise lawsuit.
Veteran stage and television star Thompson never really grasps the elegance and stateliness of the wise old matriarch, while Botsford succumbs to willowy posturing, missing the grace and incandescence of Broadway’s leading lady. Peter Maloney as the family agent never finds the crusty warmth of his character.
But not all is lost. Judy Kaye and Paul Hecht manage to rally a few giggles as the parasitic and battling second-rate thespians, and valiantly grasp the spirit of the play. Vickery as the manic matinee idol also gallantly survives with some swashbuckling silliness.
Director Susan Schulman might have laced the actors in a common cause had she captured the comedy’s spine and strength, its pace and its pulse, and most of all its charm and wistfulness.
Kevin Rupnik’s smartly furnished set of a Manhattan duplex in the late twenties very nearly steals the show, as do the divine costumes by William Ivey Long. It looks all so very perfect. Missing only is the substance of a dear old monument.
For the record, the 1975 revival began its journey to Broadway at the McCarter with a veritable dream cast: Eva Le Gallienne, Rosemary Harris, George Grizzard, Sam Levene, Joseph Maher, Mary Louise Wilson and Rosetta Le Noire.