Monday, August 10, 2009
Theater review part deux: The Royal Family
The Royal Family is best suited for those with a particular affinity for period pieces.
It's supposed to be a "madcap comedy," written in 1927 by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, to parody the Barrymore family of actors (John and Ethel in particular). Unfortunately, the actual execution yields an overlong drama with mere comedic elements.
The seventy-five minute first act is dismally slow. That's a strong statement, but I'm sticking to it. As far as I'm concerned, the play doesn't even get started until the sharp-tongued Fanny Cavendish (played with aplomb by Carolyn Wickwire) steps onstage. Fanny is the Cavendish family matriarch, an aging actress still clinging to her stardom. Her daughter Julie (Morgana Shaw) is at the height of her career at a stage actress, while granddaughter Gwen (Hilary Couch) is being newly indoctrinated into the family livelihood.
But of course there's drama! Would we believe anything less from a family of actors?
Gwen is seeing a nice young gentleman, Perry (Thiago Martins), who doubts their relationship can survive if Gwen leads the unstable and unpredictable life of a successful actor. Their romantic strife throws Gwen for a loop; how can she resolve her two loves?
Meanwhile, Julie's brother Tony (Jack Foltyn) has had several unfortunate run-ins with the law, most recently by assaulting his own director, and now he must flee the country. Until then, his selfish theatrics throw the entire house into chaos.
The second act is much stronger than the first, with a snappier pace, punchier lines and more heartfelt exchanges. Still, is it enough to save the show?
The talent ranges from passable to superb. Although a number of different performers have difficulties with their lines from time to time (I get the sense the cast just wasn't on game during the performance reviewed), they all seem to be on top of their cues.
But they aren't all in sync, and it is here that the play falters. Some give manic performances. Foltyn in particular seems to be desperately trying to channel Robin Williams in his portrayal of womanizing, self-involved Tony Cavendish. But the result is a performance that's all over the map; and I have no idea what accent he's trying to affect. It's striking to think that Laurence Olivier played the same role in England's West End staging in 1934. That said, Foltyn certainly gives an impassioned performance and infuses the play with some MUCH-needed energy.
Others are slow and steady. On the surface, this seems true to their characters. Oscar Wolfe (Robert Grossman), in particular, serves as a rock of stability and support for the Cavendish family. It seems appropriate, then, that his character should act with less flair. And yet, while he manages excellent chemistry with the rest of the cast, he doesn't bring much energy to the show, and it's a show that needs a lot. If I had magic, I would have Foltyn turn his performance down by one notch and have Grossman turn his up just a bit.
I don't mean to disparage Grossman's acting. In fact, I think he's one-third of the show's core – Wickwire and Shaw being the other two – who deliver strong enough performances to create an emotional center for the play and imbue it with gravitas. This is actually fairly remarkable. Remember my comment earlier that it's supposed to be a "madcap comedy?" If it doesn't achieve that, you'd expect the play to be totally flat and, well, abysmal.
But it's not! It has a lot of heart, and particularly in the second act, the dramas of the interpersonal relationships – what will Julie do about her old love Gil (John Venable), will Gwen return to acting, what about Fanny's failing health; will Oscar lure his lost actors back? – become compelling. It takes some real talent to take a failed comedy and create a passable drama (if at any rate you can get through the first act).
Director Jac Alder shares responsibility for the discordant performances that rob the show of success as slapstick. He's proven himself an able director many times before, but this show does pose some unique challenges: a huge cast (fourteen players in all), with actors playing actors. I don't envy Mr. Alder his task, but he needs to keep a firmer reign on his cast & keep them working synchronously.
Alder also handles set design, and he does a phenomenal job. Theatre's Three intimate stage perfectly conveys the lush elegance of a well-to-do New York apartment. I admire the sheer attention to detail – a backlit stained glass window high above, a stately grandfather clock tucked away in a back corner, bouquets of flowers filling spaces that would otherwise leave the stage feeling unnaturally sparse. I enjoyed just looking through the set trying to pick out all the different details. (In fact, the pace of the first act will give plenty of time to do just that.) Kudos for a wonderful set.
The staging isn't quite as successful, but it's still fairly clever. They make good use of every possible exit from the central stage to give the impression of a larger house (only the living room and entrance foyer are shown) while keeping the movements, entrances and exits of the actors well-balanced. However, several scenes position actors with their backs squarely to one segment of the audience (which surrounds the stage on all four sides). While some corners have to stay unblocked to allow entrances and exits, I can't help but think they could have somehow staged it so the actors could stand with their backs to the corner rather than the audience. Still, this is a minor issue in a play that keeps its performers in near constant motion.
Some of the difficulties with the enactment of the script are due to the script itself. The sensibility of the play is not aimed at modern audiences. Bear in mind, we're less than two decades away from this play being a century old. It's not that modern audiences can't appreciate it; it just doesn't pack the same punch.
I am going to quote another reviewer, Lizzie Loveridge, writing about a completely different stage performance of The Royal Family (in 1996 starring Judi Dench). This quote, in turn, is partially attributed to another reviewer of yet another performance five years earlier. I mention this sequence to emphasize a recurrent theme in reviews of modern revivals of The Royal Family: A topical play written in the 1920s may simply not resonate or have the same impact on an audience decades later.
"The play is not as dazzlingly witty as we might have expected from two such writers. I also think that today with people not having to choose between careers and family, the issues the play deals with are not as momentous as they once might have been. This sadly leaves The Royal Family in a kind of no man's land of theatre, not a great historical play, nor a great comedy and certainly not a great tragedy AND on this occasion, a sad waste of theatrical talent" (1).
On the subject of the play's wit and timeliness, I also wonder if the script is written not just to the culture but also to the theatrical logistics of the period. That is, I would accuse the first act of being overlong, bulging with excess fluff that should be cut or at least trimmed. But for a play from a period that often had THREE acts and TWO intermissions, perhaps what I call "fluff" would have been thought of as "building the story."
The Royal Family is best suited for those with a particular affinity for period pieces, for the production does a tremendous job of capturing the feel of the Roaring Twenties; for those who will recognize and appreciate the wink-wink humor aimed at the world of theater and those who inhabit it; and for those who are fans of the top performers – Morgana Shaw, Carolyn Wickwire and Robert Grossman – who all deliver stellar performances.
1. Loveridge, Lizzie. "The Royal Family." Curtain Up. 1996.
http://www.curtainup.com/royalfamilylond.html (retrieved 6 August 2009).
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column