Play: “The Royal Family”
Group: Act, Inc.
Venue: Fontbonne Fine Arts Theatre, Big Bend south of Wydown
Dates: June 24, 25, 26
Tickets: $20; contact 314-725-9108 or www.actinc.biz
Story: Life is a serious of melodramatic adventures, at least as performed on a daily basis by the flamboyant Cavendish clan. They’ve been the established elite of the American theater for decades, as the elegant family portraits in their tony New York City apartment indicate. Now, in 1927, it’s time for Gwen Cavendish, daughter of acclaimed actress Julie Cavendish and granddaughter of the renowned Fanny Cavendish, to join the ranks of her celebrated ancestors. Long-suffering family agent Oscar Wolfe has an ideal role for Gwen. The free-spirited lass, however, is threatening to rebel by running off and marrying handsome young stockbroker Perry Stewart.
While Oscar entreats Gwen to delay marriage for the juicy part he’s brought her, he’s badgered by Fanny’s meddling brother Herbert, who insists he’s found a play that will restore his own fading career. Herbert in turn is plagued by his wife Kitty, who wants a part in Julie’s newest venture, even if Julie already has anointed another actress for the role. Oscar’s mettle is further tested when the rogue Cavendish, Tony, returns home besieged with his latest Hollywood scandal, seeking sanctuary in his mother Fanny’s home while contemplating his next grand adventure. To top everything off, Julie is smitten with her lost love, Gilbert, a wealthy tycoon who has returned from South America with an offer of marriage that could further disrupt the acting dynasty.
Highlights: How do you mirror the theatrics and bold-face headlines of the Barrymores and their in-law Drews on the very stage where they made their legendary marks? Simply assign the task to a pair of noted American writers, namely playwright/director George S. Kaufman and playwright/novelist Edna Ferber. That pair of accomplished scribes collaborated on other theatrical hits such as “Dinner at Eight” and “Stage Door,” and combined their collective wits in penning this three-act send-up of the notorious Barrymores, including siblings Lionel, Ethel and John.
Director Steve Callahan once again has resurrected a treasured theatrical masterpiece, the type of work that is Act, Inc.’s raison d’etre. While the production is charming throughout, it’s the larger-than-life bravado of Joshua Thomas as the thundering Tony Cavendish (read: John Barrymore) that really propels this presentation.
Other Info: Thomas can bellow with the best of them, and his antic behavior is a much-needed tonic for the otherwise leisurely pace of this three-act work that consumes nearly three hours. He’s fitfully funny as he lunges through his dialogue as recklessly as he chews up the scenery while making the grandest of entrances and exits. It’s a magnificent performance that has ‘Kevin Kline nomination’ virtually imprinted upon it.
Lynn Rathbone also offers a splendid turn as Fannie, haughty matriarch of the Cavendish brood. Rathbone delivers her lines with just the right flair, instilling both the Cavendish spirit and the concomitant air of superiority for every occasion. Katie McGee embodies the free-spirited Gwen, who finds that blood is thicker than the pull of a wedding ring, while Liz Hopefl is a steadying influence as the reigning matinee queen, Julie, handling myriad family responsibilities like an unrivaled juggler.
Chuck Lavazzi and Laura Kyro provide their own humorous moments as the bickering Deans. Colin Nichols and David Cooperstein do fine work as ‘outsiders’ Marshall and Stewart, respectively, while Barry Hyatt relishes his role as the family’s busy manager. Michele Dodson and Gold Wise have fun as the efficient domestic help, Della and Jo, Tim Grumich is Julie’s personal boxing trainer and Chris Jent and Bob Nickles nicely fill the roles of bag handlers, chauffeurs and even an Indian gunga brought back by Tony. Topsy Baskerville, looking suspiciously like noted graphics designer Marjorie Williamson, capably fills out the cast as Gwen’s nanny.
Tim Poertner’s lavish scenic design sets the right tone for the elegant Cavendish digs, complete with handsome family portraits, and is well lit by Michael Sullivan’s design. Sound designer Robin Weatherall cleverly puts together several fine old numbers reminiscent of the Roaring Twenties, Teresa Doggett brings flair to the costuming, whether the various attire for the ladies or Tony’s garish fur coat, Rathbone unearths some quaint props and Mike Monsey adds some sparkling, if brief, faux sword combat for Tony and the boxing coach.
“The Royal Family” is a well-written piece, but it’s Thomas’ outrageous antics that propel this rendition beyond a mere curio piece into true entertainment.
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.