We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
The last time I saw The Royal Family, Broadway’s sentimental valentine to the Drews and the Barrymores, an infant bearing both those names had just been born. The year was 1976, the revival of the play had just finished a smash Broadway run, and though it had been ages since representatives of either acting dynasty had trod the boards, few critics thought it necessary to remind theatergoers who they were.
Nor did showbiz columnists covering the birth, to whom the composite name Drew Barrymore seemed a virtual guarantee of acting talent. No one in the entertainment world blinked when this child with a pedigree shrieked at the sight of E.T. in a closet and began her ascent in Hollywood. And there was little surprise when she later proved temperamental and prone to tumult in her personal life. She was, after all, descended from some of the most high-strung stars who’d ever made grand entrances in Broadway’s golden age.
She was, in other words, in precisely the situation playwrights George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber imagine for their character Gwen Cavendish (Melinda Page Hamilton) at the outset of The Royal Family. The year is 1927, and Gwen is the pampered young ingenue who is expected to follow in her mother’s, grandmother’s, and uncle’s footsteps, and carry on the Cavendish (think Barrymore) family business of thrilling audiences eight times a week.
It’s less a business than an industry, actually. Julia (Kate Skinner), Gwen’s self-dramatizing mom, is appearing on Broadway in one star vehicle and preparing to co-star with her daughter in another. Ailing granny Fanny (DeAnn Mears) has plans to take a company out on tour as soon as her health permits. Flamboyant uncle Tony (J. Fred Shiffman) is on his way home from Hollywood, where he’s been making headlines for slugging his director and jilting one of his co-stars. And that’s just the beginning. Other relatives (who are approximately the Drews) are bickering over roles they’re far too old to play but far too vain to give up for another decade at least. And Gwen is torn between the demands of an impresario who wants her to pay more attention to her career and a fiance who’d just as soon she give it up entirely.
Sounds like fun, no? Well, it should be, and in 1976, with Rosemary Harris, Ellis Raab, Sam Levene, and Eva Le Gallienne playing the leads at the National Theatre, it was. But almost from the moment the lights come up on Arena’s opulently realized Manhattan sitting room, with its intricately inlaid floors and elegantly tufted furniture, the show feels heavy and sluggish. And, oddly, it feels that way largely because it’s so constantly in motion. Before a word is spoken, director Douglas C. Wager sends delivery boys and servants careening around the space as if he were staging a Marx Bros. romp rather than a nostalgic, sentimental evening about theatrical days gone by. Apart from setting the wrong tone (and being unfunny), all this barging around effectively cheapens the visuals as servants clomp up stairs and across carpeted floors that have up to that moment looked wonderfully solid, but that instantly sound like the hollow stage sets they are.
When the principals arrive, also bouncing around like billiard balls, it becomes clear that the company has been ordered as a point of style to keep things frenzied. Also big. The Cavendishes are supposed to be larger than life, of course, and hyperemotional. But at Arena, the performers appear to have confused flamboyance with mere broadness. Minor characters—even Timmy Ray James’ butler—strut and posture so much that the folks playing vivid actor types are forced to expand gestures until they might as well be docking jets out at Dulles.
Hamilton’s Gwen has no sooner struck a few quick poses in her riding outfit than she’s rushing offstage to change into something more suitable for hurling herself at couches. This is a trick she appears to have learned from her mother; Skinner’s Julia also has a habit of leaping face-down onto divans and sobbing into pillows to express even mild disappointment. It’s an ingenue’s gesture, and one that might well be amusing if Skinner and Hamilton were a tad less matronly and if they each leapt just once. Alas, both actresses are permitted to indulge themselves pretty much at will, flinging themselves into longueurs that do not grow appreciably more hilarious with each new fling.
The one part that’s written with this sort of overkill in mind is that of Tony, who was modeled on John Barrymore and who is played to proto-campy perfection by Shiffman, a performer who wields rapiers and one-liners with equal aplomb. When Wager has him sweep onstage almost completely engulfed in his cashmere trench coat and felt fedora, the effect is everything you’ve been hoping for all evening. Which is not to suggest that the others should be going for similar effects. There’s a difference between matinee idol and stage sylph, after all—one requires a glow, the other a halo—and having everyone play at fever pitch for the same sorts of laughs simply makes things seem overheated. Perhaps that’s why the cooler moments supplied by Mears’ caustic but comparatively reserved family matriarch register as strongly as they do.
Grant that The Royal Family is less attuned to modern sensibilities than are the other Kaufman-slash-whoever comedies Wager has mounted for Arena. Even if the exploits of ’20s stage stars were terribly au courant, the play would still feel overlong at three hours, especially with its two authors having two separate businessmen woo two separate leading ladies, only to demand of each that she give up the stage for pretty much the same reasons, in pretty much the same way.
Also grant that Arena has done a few things quite well, chief among them the turning over to costumer Zack Brown of what looks like enough velvet and fustian to outfit a real royal family for a decade or so. Brown also contributed the sets, and is, in nearly every respect, the evening’s hero. The show looks splendid. Too bad it’s so dull. CP