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Age Dulls 1930s Skewering of Renowned Theatrical Family

STAGE FRIGHT: (From Left) Cherie Weinert, Molly Moores, and Nona Porter fear to tread the boards in The Royal Family.

By John Barry | Posted 6/22/2005

The Royal Family At the Merrick Barn through July 3

By George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber

If you think Drew Barrymore just dropped out of the blue, Theatre Hopkins’ production of The Royal Family could be a revelation. The play is a thinly veiled fictional account of the five-generation theatrical dynasty from which she sprang. When it was produced in 1934, the obvious similarities between the fictional Cavendishes and the real-life Barrymores gave the play a bit of an edge—to the point where Ethel Barrymore threatened to sue playwright George S. Kaufman for libel. Since the 1940s, though, a little bit of the zip has gone out of the in-jokes and shadow references. At its best, this is a pleasant drawing-room comedy that doesn’t really try to dig all that far beyond the footlights.

The entire three-act play takes place in the Cavendishes’ New York apartment. Bill Rouse’s elaborately designed set gives the production some added flair; unfortunately, the apartment gets smaller as the play progresses—largely because the Cavendishes are completely sealed off from the outside world. Mobs of admirers are banging on the doors downstairs, the phone rings off the hook, agents try to get them to sign contracts, and down-and-out actors try to squeeze them for a few bucks. Most of the Cavendishes want to escape this apartment—so why wouldn’t we?

The play’s defining quandary is fairly trite: to be an actor or not to be an actor. By the middle of the first act, all the Cavendishes waver in their commitment to the stage. And being actors, of course, they will all keep coming back. But before that happens each member of the family contemplates leaving the theater for good.

Julie Cavendish (Cherie Weinert), the play’s central character, is being hounded both by needy relatives and Gil Marshall (Tom Blair), an old flame who wants to spirit her away to Ethiopia. Gwen Cavendish (Molly Moores), her daughter, is being courted by Perry Stewart (Jonas Grey), a Wall Street financier who doesn’t have much patience for the theater. The swashbuckling Tony Cavendish—based on John Barrymore—arrives by train, desperate to get out of the country, since he’s being pursued by creditors and scorned lovers. The theatrical grande dame, Fanny Cavendish (Nona Porter), appears to be the only real trooper, always willing to take shows on the road, but she’s getting a little old for the acting.

With that many plot lines the atmosphere of full-tilt excitement gets a little contrived. Ensemble scenes are the weakness of this production, possibly because of the stage’s size. The characters angle for the spotlight crammed into a small room, “whispering” into one another’s ears in the background or breaking out in excited chatter. Such scenes require split-second timing and room to maneuver. Hopefully, the next venue for the Hopkins Theatre will make 15-person productions such as this one a little easier to handle.

The play’s most appealing characters are actually the ones on the sidelines who are a little overwhelmed by this self-absorbed clan of thespians. As Marshall, Tom Blair projects calm intensity as he tries to convince Julie to give up the theater for a more comfortable life. In their brief scenes together, Blair and Weinert give the play a little romantic interest. Michael O’Connell offers a polished performance as Oscar Wolfe, the smooth-talking but manipulative agent of the Cavendishes. Unfortunately, both these characters frequently get lost in the shrill, squawking crowd.

In the end, The Royal Family is an amusing trip down memory lane, but after 70 years the play hasn’t aged all that well. Maybe it’s just that now, whenever we get a hold of our icons, we’re used to roughing them up a little. John Barrymore, for instance, would have been perfect fodder for a little soul-baring. He was in steep decline when this play came out, drinking heavily and reading his lines off chalkboards. But Kaufman treats him and the rest of his family with a light, deferential touch that, for better or worse, has gone out of style.

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