April 12, 2004
Ahmanson's Pleasant Valentine to Charming, Neurotic Acting Dynasties
By Rob Kendt
They don't make nostalgia like they used to, and maybe that's just as well.
Case in point: George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's star-struck 1927 ode to the lure of the greasepaint, The Royal Family. While audiences of the time clearly understood it to be based on the storied Drew/Barrymore acting dynasty, then still preeminent on the American stage, it is hard to imagine this funny, sticky valentine--now in a pleasant if trifling revival at the Ahmanson Theatre--ever playing with the immediacy of the present tense.
However it appeared at the time, the play's romanticized view of stage artists seems, today, rather like an exercise in self-congratulation, though at this distance it's hard to know precisely for what. With its broad, loving strokes and its impromptu stump speeches about the theatrical calling, The Royal Family often plays like a backstage bedtime story, to be read aloud to Broadway babies as they drift off to dreams of endless applause and bundles of bouquets.
In the absence of our firsthand knowledge of stage royalty--we no longer have any in this country, if we ever truly did--the show's self-reflecting glow settles on the troupers who fill the roles in the current production, which is why it takes a certain serendipity in casting for it to be worth mounting at all.
By that standard, director Tom Moore's production is a success, starting at the top with Marian Seldes as Fanny Cavendish, the family's elder stateswoman, who graciously dotes on her progeny's careers while quietly pining for her own return to the stage after a long illness. Seldes is a serenely queenly presence with a crown of gray tresses and angular features that suggest a Hirschfeld drawing come to life, and colored by Erte: She's dressed by costumer Robert Blackman in a series of flowing, silky ensembles that evoke Eqyptian pajamas.
As her fiery daughter Julie, at the peak of her career but having mid-life doubts about the "real" life the stage has kept her from, Kate Mulgrew is well cast but not content to rest on that. With a raspy voice that manages to crack in a variety of registers and lock jawed diction so thick it almost becomes a speech impediment, Mulgrew gives an antic, mercurial performance that only settles into its own at the end of Act Two.
It is here that Julie finally loses it and delivers a comic aria of recrimination, verging on mad, that draws the show's main conflict in thick lines: Between the mayhem of a theatrical household that's always "on" and an existence defined by domesticity, between the Cavendishes' unruly dynasty and a more typical version of family values, Julie cries out for the imagined comforts of security, dignity, modesty--though, naturally, with a protest-too-much vigor that belies her words.
This scene highlights one of Moore's more knowing running gags, that these playhouse creatures are never more over-the-top dramatic than when they're renouncing the actor's life. Whether it's the torrentially capricious Tony, a spoiled, swashbuckling cad modeled on John Barrymore, and played with winning, winking savoir faire by Daniel Gerroll; or their harrumphing manager, Oscar (George S. Irving), who gives the evening's signature pep talks amid his kvelling about the vagaries of show business; or the reluctant new ingenue, Julie's daughter Gwen (Melinda Page Hamilton), who just can't imagine she'll ever tire of her stockbroker fiance, Perry (Robert L. Devaney).
There's a faint feminist strain here, courtesy of co-writer Ferber. An elegiac scene with the three generations of Cavendish women, with Fanny offering a sort of sense-memory demonstration of her pre-show rituals, is practically a having-it-all primer; though in this rosy backstage view, in which no serious dysfunction, avarice, jealousy, or economic worry intrudes, there seems precious little at stake in the choice of career vs. family.
This sort of fantasy can be irresistible, even empowering, for creative types, which is one reason why reviving this play, particularly in Los Angeles, is a swell enough idea, and why this new production deserves to be a modest local hit.
It doesn't hurt, of course, that the production is also matter-of-factly sumptuous: Douglas W. Schmidt's capacious two-story set, with its curving staircase and high-flying curtains, gives the place an affectionately homegrown staginess.
And mention must be made of a quintet of scruffy scene stealers--five well-behaved dogs, trained by William Berloni, whose entrances, exits, and reassuring presence through a number of scenes are among the show's clearest signals of the way domestic harmony can prevail among even the most motley menagerie.