THE ROYAL FAMILY Theatre Review
George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s 1927 The Royal Family is a love letter to the act of acting, and, in particular, to the actors and actresses who trod the boards and appear onscreen. Modeled after the Barrymore clan, Royal’s Cavendishes are the first family of America’s thespians. Greasepaint coursing through their blood they are theatrical in every sense of the term, as well as free spirits similar to the Sycamores in the anarchistic screwball comedy You Can’t Take It With You, which Kaufman co-wrote with Moss Hart for the stage in 1936 and with Robert Riskin for the screen in 1938 (co-starring a certain Lionel Barrymore, BTW).
Who better to incarnate this dynasty of performers than members of the House (or, rather, amphitheater) of Geer, a real lifeline of stage and screen artistes, descended from legendary, lanky Will Geer (1954’s The Salt of the Earth, 1972’s Jeremiah Johnson, and ultimately as America’s beloved über-grandpa from 1972-1978 on TV’s The Waltons)? Ellen Geer, the venerable Artistic Director of the Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, plays Fanny, the aging, ailing, grand dame of the thee-a-tuh and matriarch of the Cavendishes. Ellen’s sister, Melora Marshall — a shape-shifting actress known, among other things, for her gender bending roles (she portrays the male character Grumio in The Taming of the Shrew, one of the other plays this troupe is presenting in repertory this summer) — here plays Fanny’s daughter, actress Julie Cavendish. Willow Geer — who, offstage, is Ellen’s actual daughter and Marshall’s niece — portrays ingénue Gwen Cavendish, the onstage child of Julie at the beginning of her acting career.
The Geers’ in-law, Abby Craden, depicts Kitty Dean, who is dissed and disdained by the Cavendishes for committing the unforgivable, heinous crime of being a lousy actress. This presents an artistic challenge for Craden — who has portrayed Cleopatra and Queen Elizabeth in Theatricum Shakespearean productions and also appeared in numerous plays presented by the A Noise Within company — because Craden actually is quite a good player.
Royal’s action takes place entirely in the Cavendishes’ sprawling home. Comebacks, romances, premieres and more things than are dreamt of in your philosophy are hatched on the premises in this madcap comedy and merry meditation on the nature of celebrity. The Cavendishes are fiendishly funny, hammy, scenery-chewing, attention seeking troupers, for whom the play’s the thing (along with the moolah, adulation, and gratification applause brings). If Fanny is patterned after Ethel Barrymore (who threatened to sue the playwrights and after Royal’s Broadway premiere “only nodded coolly to Kaufman when the two met at parties,” according to Howard Teichmann’s biography of the writer), then Tony Cavendish is clearly inspired by that matinee idol, John Barrymore.
The estimable Aaron Hendry’s two-fisted Tony steals ever single scene he’s in, like Winona Ryder let loose in Saks Fifth Avenue. Hendry, who also plays Petruchio this season in the Theatricum’s Shrew, portrays his swashbuckling character with great panache, and is heaps of fun to watch in every scene he steals, dashing from brawls, paparazzi and lovers seeking to serve him legal papers for “breach of promise” lawsuits. Both playwrights knew Drew’s forebears, the Barrymores, but there is scant if any mention by Kaufman and Ferber of the carousing John Barrymore’s legendary, prodigious drinking. Their farce focuses on the foibles of actors by trade, and in particular on the few who attain stardom and are firmly fixed in the public eye.
The stage and screen credits of Kaufman, of course, include the Marx Brothers’ The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, as well as Dinner at Eight (with Ferber), Nothing Sacred, The Man Who Came to Dinner and other classics. Ferber, who likewise was a mid-Westerner with a German-Jewish and newspaper background, was also a novelist who wrote the books Show Boat, Giant and Cimarron, which were adapted for the screen. A film version of their The Royal Family was directed by George Cukor in 1930 and in 1977 there was a TV movie version. Given today’s snaparazzi and the TMZ, tabloid press with TMI about celebs, it would be a hoot to update this 86-year-old play.
In any case, Susan Angelo ably directs what is now a period piece, with a cast that includes Theatricum alum Alan Blumenfeld as Oscar Wolfe, a commercial theatrical producer who yet dreams of producing at least one play with redeeming artistic value. Tim Halligan drolly depicts the over-the-hill Herbert Dean who dreams of returning to the limelight. Andy Stokan and Bill Gunther both play the long suffering suitors of, respectively, Gwen and Julie, who have the impossible task of competing for their affections with the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd.
The Royal Family is delicious fun with the Geers in fine form and moving in high Geer. This is a rollicking, royal romp full of Bohemian bonhomie, an ode to those who have been bitten by the acting bug — and to those of us who enjoy watching them prance about on- and offstage in their not-so-private lives.
The Royal Family is being performed in repertory through Sept. 28 along with Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming of the Shrew, Merlin by Ellen Geer and Tone Clusters by Joyce Carol Oates at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum: 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, California, 90290. For repertory schedule and other information call: (310)455-3723 or see: www.Theatricum.com.
Photos: Miriam Geer
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