ART'S SUPPOSED to hold a mirror to nature, but when a play sets actors portraying actors, the theater can turn into a house of mirrors. Resonances and multiple entendres give performers a chance to show off and audiences the opportunity to smile knowingly. George Kaufman and Edna Ferber's durable comedy doesn't make too much of this complexity, not nearly as much as some other plays in the genre, like David Mamet's A Life in the Theater. The Royal Family sticks closely to the bustling, three-act comedy formula that Kaufman and his collaborators used in so many of their perennially-revived scripts.
Nonetheless, the play does hand any troupe a difficult assignment--trying to convince an audience that they're watching the greatest stage family of an age. Self-consciousness or ostentation easily creep in. But for the most part, Timothy Garry's production boldly closes its eyes to the danger, and, like Gloucester, steps over the cliff to discover there's no precipice at all.
If you ignore The Royal Family's multiple mirrors and just present it as a straightforward domestic comedy with Broadway trappings--as, with the exception of a couple of entrances, the Loeb production does--then the problem evaporates. This approach loses some of the subtlety of the play-about-actors, but then, a George Kaufman comedy hardly demands subtle treatment. Modest ambitions save the Loeb's Royal Family from becoming a grandiose statement about "the theatre" and salvage an evening's entertainment out of the alluring labyrinth of mirrors.
Three generations of the Cavendish family grace the show, each with its doubts and troubles but all united in the unshakable belief that they hold the key to theatrical success in their genes. Hitting the right notes of arrogance and aristocratic off-handedness must be a trial. and not surprisingly only one of the Cavendishes at the Loeb finds the perfect balance. Shirley Wilber animates Fanny Cavendish, the grand dame of both stage and family, with accomplished ease: she seems as comfortable acting the role on stage as her comfortable acting the role on stage as her character does adding bits of drama to living room scenes. Wilber presides over both her household and this production with the assurance of a great actress who no longer needs to prove herself.
Fanny's daughter Julie inherits her mantle in the play, and Katharine Kean in her role offers plentiful urbanity and ease on stage. Her dramatic posturing is less subtle than Wilber's, and more self-conscious, but she maintains the illusion of the unrivalled actress in her prime in all but the most taxing moments. In the grand renunciation scene, when she announces she will leave the stage--forever, of course--the poised aristocrat turns into a ranting hausfrau, flailing and directing her harangue at the audience. The dislocation is brief but unsettling.
Other performers in the show, too, seem like those good, dependable singers who know their art but whose voices go a little flat on the high notes. Alison Carey's Gwen--the youngest Cavendish, who's torn between love and the stage--gives a fine performance except when called upon, in the ineptly-written love scenes or her own renunciation of a stage career, to display excesses of emotion. Rounding out the clan, Michael Cantor's Anthony--the rake of the family, who sold out to Hollywood--hams his way through his part with plenty of panache but without some of the stature you might expect.
Of course, The Royal Family moments of emotional excess aren't its best, and the Loeb cast is strong precisely where the script is strong: situational comedy. The first act drags a bit, but both second and third build to those frenzied, crowded scenes into which Kaufman is always tossing one more character. Both Cantor and Sam Samuels as Wolfe, the family's agent, have a knack for comic timing, and Wilber drops off-hand insults like time-bombs. Jeffrey Horwitz and Mario Aieta, as the men in the actress's lives who are forever barred from understanding their calling, receive no help from the script, and achieve correspondingly little success.
The outcasts of the play, Herbert Dean (Leo-Pierre Roy) and Kitty Dean (Dede Schmeiser), whose gaucherie sets off the Cavendish style, demand obnoxiousness from their performers. They get it here, in full doses, but a bit more variety might help them get through the last two acts without turning off the audience.
Director Garry could have taken some of the burden of enlivening slow patches of the script off the actors' hands, but chose not to, using dull blocking and an entirely static--though lavish--set. The only evidence of a director's hand in the production at all, in fact, is the presence of a pianist (Jeffrey Halpern) on stage before each act, playing show tunes and Gershwin with flair but without much point.
A LESS PASSIVE director might have chosen to make more of The Royal Family; in this production, nothing transcends simple comedy except Fanny's Act II monologue--a magical evocation of the scene backstage before curtain time, which Wilber uses to cast a spell over the house. In this case, passivity unintentionally pays off--the Loeb Royal Family doesn't pin any more significance on the slightly dated script than it can support. Three hours of good comedy remain, without any mirror tricks but without too much pretense, as well.