There's no people like show people -- and no play proves that more than "The Royal Family," which opened Wednesday night at the Ahmanson Theatre. George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's tart valentine to show biz has been around for almost 80 years, but amazingly, its situations and emotions still feel relevant and fresh.
"The Royal Family" and its theatrical dynasty of once and future thespians, the Cavendishes, are firmly planted in the 1920s. Talk of steamships, butlers and telegrams keeps the play safely in the past. But any revival -- and there have been many -- can't help but reveal that the flamboyant, decadent and outrageous Cavendishes are really just like every other American family, only more so.
The three-act play (performed here with only one intermission) focuses on three generations of Cavendish grande dames: Fanny, Julie and Gwen. Fanny (played by Marian Seldes) is the family's matriarch, who is facing -- or not facing -- the prospect of retirement. Her daughter, Julie (Kate Mulgrew), is an established star who, as she approaches middle age, is considering giving up her fame to become a trophy wife. Finally, there's Julie's daughter, Gwen (Melinda Page Hamilton), who's poised to become the next great Cavendish but is torn between motherhood and her budding career.
The folks at the Ahmanson -- usually a home to coproductions that originate elsewhere -- have mounted this production by themselves. Perhaps the royal family that makes up the Center Theater Group (itself amid a generational transition) wanted to put its stamp on this classic before turning the company over to its new artistic director next fall. In reviving "The Royal Family," they haven't cut corners: The sets are big and highly detailed, the period costumes smart and flashy, and the cast comprises a highly diverse troupe of talented stage and screen veterans.
It's disappointing then that the sum of all this lavish stagecraft and talent feels so lifeless. Sure, there are a few instances when Kaufman's glittering zingers are made to shine, and yes, there are moments when Ferber's delicate pathos creeps up and gives weight to the surrounding comedy. For the most part, however, this revival feels like a museum exhibit. Watching it is like peering through the glass at a mock-up of an old-fashioned Broadway hit. Everything is in place and looks right -- except that no matter how long you stare, it never comes to life.
This artificiality is not helped by the decision to use tiny microphones to amplify the actors' speech. These devices are commonly used in musicals, where they are awkward but somewhat, and unfortunately, necessary. In a straight play like "The Royal Family," the mikes prove to be incredibly distracting. Beside the feedback and buzzes, which will likely be cleaned up as the run continues, the microphones distorted the performers' voices at consistent but ill-timed intervals.
The performance most hampered was Mulgrew's. At times, her voice suddenly boomed with a bassy tone that made it appear as though her character was possessed. When not distorted by electrical amplification, Mulgrew sounded as though she was channeling Katharine Hepburn. It's a fine impersonation, but it suggests that rather than reinterpreting the character of Julie, Mulgrew simply rehashed her Hepburn bio-play from last year, "Tea at Five."
The sole actor who succeeds at livening up this "Royal" affair is Daniel Gerroll, who plays Anthony Cavendish, the rakish playboy who has jilted his theatrical career for a life in Hollywood. Gerroll is best in his entrance, where he bursts onstage as a tempest of manic self-obsession. Occasionally, Gerroll goes a bit over the top, but for the most part he expertly controls his voice and movements, portraying Anthony as man for whom every word and gesture, even in front of his own family, has been meticulously choreographed for dramatic effect.
The rest of the cast does an able job, although too often the punch lines are anticipated, subtle jokes are overstated and a general sense of ease is assumed, as if the play is such a classic that it will get laughs regardless of effort. Director Tom Moore clearly wants to capture the madcap frenzy associated with this type of play, but besides encouraging histrionics, his only real directorial touch is to populate the stage with as many dogs as possible. It must be said that the dogs consistently delighted the audience, even on occasion pulling focus from the scene being performed.