A `Royal Family' That's Slightly Mismatched

Posted: October 04, 1996

PRINCETON — ``May God strike me dead if I ever appear in an all-star revival!'' barks old Fanny Cavendish early in The Royal Family, the 1927 George S. Kaufman-Edna Ferber comedy on view at the McCarter Theatre in, yes, an all-star revival.

She knows whereof she speaks. The Royal Family, which covers a year in the tumultuous life of a theatrical dynasty not unlike the Barrymores, is a buoyant celebration of theater and the actors who give it life; it's at once a gimlet-eyed satire and a starry-eyed valentine. But the play demands a near-perfect ensemble to make sense of its eccentric characters and suggest the solidarity that underlies their bickering, and an all-star cast isn't necessarily the best means to that end.

The cast assembled by director Susan H. Schulman - including Sada Thompson, Sara Botsford, John Vickery, Paul Hecht and Judy Kaye - may not be all-stars down at your neighborhood multiplex, but in the world of the theater they're pretty hot stuff. They do rather well, too, by the play's affectionate sendup of a clan, the Cavendishes, in which the merest trifle becomes the stuff of high drama. You should have a fine time with this Royal Family, yet you may ultimately feel the whole is somehow less than the sum of its parts.

The plot is gossamer-thin and almost entirely predictable, almost all of it having to do with whether the theater is worth the sacrifices it imposes. (If you think the answer is no, you probably should stay home.) Can Fanny, the matriarch, resume touring at her advanced age? Should Fanny's daughter Julia, the leading lady, and Julia's daughter Gwen, the ingenue, marry the exquisitely boring men who promise them ``regular'' lives? (``I can give you the names of actors and actresses of hundreds of years ago - dozens of them,'' Gwen tells her old-money swain. ``Name me two 17th-century stockbrokers.'')

What will happen to Fanny's brother, Herbert Dean, an actor of the ham persuasion now beginning to go to seed, and his singularly untalented and unchic actress wife, Kitty, who lusts after the roles that go to Julia? And what of Julia's brother, Tony, the play's swashbuckling John Barrymore figure, who arrives in Act 1 fleeing a series of misdemeanors in Hollywood and, after escaping to Europe, returns in Act 3 having started a small war with his amours?

You won't find many plays with this many juicy parts in them. The trick, however, is to maintain the individuality of each part while establishing a unifying style for the play as a whole, and Schulman hasn't quite managed it.

On one hand, there is Thompson's wonderfully understated Fanny, suggesting more with a single ``Ah!'' than most actors do with paragraphs of dialogue. On the other, there is Botsford's Julia, always ``on,'' always striking poses - a showy reading that's ultimately persuasive, yet one with a much steamier energy level than Thompson's. I admired both performances, but I couldn't help feeling they might connect better were their temperatures more congenial.

The rest of the impersonations fall somewhere between these extremes. Vickery's Tony is very good, careering about the stage as if living every moment at the edge of a precipice. Hecht and Kaye are wonderful as the battling Deans, who actually are quite fond of each other, and Kali Rocha does nicely as Gwen, the ingenue in life as well as on stage. But neither of the two suitors is altogether satisfactory, and Peter Maloney is miscast as the family agent, Oscar Wolfe.

William Ivey Long clearly had a wonderful time designing costumes from a time when style was really style, and Kevin Rupnik's baronial duplex takes your breath away. It has become commonplace in some quarters to applaud a play's set, but this one really deserves such a response.

THE ROYAL FAMILY Written by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber; directed by Susan H. Schulman.

The cast: Sada Thompson, Sara Botsford, John Vickery, others.

Playing at: McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton, through Oct. 13. Tickets are $25 to $34. Information: 609-683-8000.

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