The Royal Family

“The Royal Family”
a kate west review
by George S. Kaufman & Edna Ferber; directed by Tom Moore
at the Ahmanson Theatre/Center Theatre Group/
L.A. Music Center
135 North Grand Ave, Los Angeles 90012
March 27 – May 16, 2004; Call 213-628-2772

Creators Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman, flamboyant artistic voices from the early 1920’s, may have officially denied it, but “The Royal Family” is absolutely a portrait of the famous theatrical dynasty, the Barrymores. Currently running in downtown Los Angeles’ large venue, the Ahmanson Theatre, the latest production of “The Royal Family” is an extravagantly nostalgic dramatic romp designed to be a crowd pleaser.

The matriarchal head of the “Cavendish” (a.k.a. Barrymore) clan is Grand mere Fanny Cavendish, gloriously portrayed by stage diva Marian Seldes. Her daughter Julie, normally played by Kate Mulgrew, is aptly played by understudy and local stage veteran Jenna Cole at this particular Sunday matinee. Rounding out the family cast is spunky granddaughter Gwen (Melinda Page Hamilton) and swashbuckler brother/uncle Anthony (the suave Daniel Gerroll).The entire artistic brood is in constant uproar throughout the play, exiting and entering in proper melodramatic manner. The Cavendish family has been comprised of world famous actors dating back to their ancestry. They are expected to love the theater and to act ‘til they drop as did poor old Grandfather Cavendish.

Blustering George S. Irving as theatrical manager Oscar Wolfe and equally vociferous Charles Kimbrough as Herbert Dean dart in and out of the household, contributing to the general noise and clamor. Adding to the mayhem are frantic stereotypical servants (Ellia English and Alan Mandell) running around as well as five live dogs, while extraordinarily well-trained, are naturally distracting as they run up and down steps and jump on chairs.

Perplexed outsiders Gilbert Marshall (Richard Cox) and Perry Stewart (Robert L. Devaney) attempt to the win the hands and hearts of Julie and Gwen respectively, hopelessly trying to become more important to the women than the Cavendish’s fanatical devotion to their theatrical careers and family. Both women struggle between wanting a normal life and wanting to be loved. The family naturally loudly discusses this dilemma endlessly. The issue is never fully resolved, as Gwen marries and has a child but still longs to return to the stage and Julie decides to marry Gilbert but has doubts of her own. She does not want her only daughter Gwen to end up alone as she did and yet cannot bear for her to give up her heart’s desire. The puzzling ending (no fear – it will not be given away here!) does not offer any illumination.

Set Designer Douglas W. Schmidt creates a clever set, a cross between a realistic mansion-style home (with gorgeous floors, rugs and furniture) and an obvious stage “set” with painted murals and exaggerated colors. This atmosphere encourages applause when the curtain first goes up as do all the usual theatrical manipulative devices such as grand gestures and Noel Coward style delivery. All in all, it is a rather empty piece and while director Tom Moore has the actors make the most of playing as melodramatic as possible this exaggerated technique grows rather tiresome. Unfortunately, the play is not particularly inspirational or deeply interesting in spite of the obvious effort of the unrestrained actors.

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