Orange County Register
Tuesday, April 6, 2004
A 'Royal' revival

A venerable comedy classic looks at a fictional theater family that may seem strangely familiar to Barrymore fans. 

The Orange County Register 

This feuding, famous family was as close as America gets to royalty: Several generations of actors, many of them world famous, who dominated stages in New York and London and reached the zenith of their power during the 1920s; a wayward brother whose Hollywood scandals were almost as legendary as his romantic characters on the silver screen; a theatrical pedigree that could be traced back, some say, to Elizabethan times.

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of old movies and American theater history knows that only one clan fits that description: the Barrymores. But those who have seen "The Royal Family," George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's 1927 play, may also recognize the fictional Cavendishes - a similarity that its authors always denied was intentional.

"They admitted that (the play) was inspired by the Barrymores but not based on them," said Tom Moore, who is directing a production of the seldom-staged, big-cast comedy at the Ahmanson Theatre, where it opens Wednesday.

"And it's not really close to reality, because if it was, then Lionel would be in it. (Lionel Barrymore was the eldest of the three siblings who were the most famous members of the family during the early part of the 20th century; he was a year older than his sister, Ethel, and four years older than the family black sheep, John.)

"The only character who's really close is Anthony, who's modeled clearly on John," Moore said. In "The Royal Family," Anthony has just returned to the family's New York mansion from Hollywood, where sex and money scandals forced a hasty departure. Such imbroglios were hallmarks of John Barrymore's brilliant but highly checkered and booze-shortened career.

The Barrymores didn't think much of Kaufman and Ferber's protestations of innocence. Ethel was reportedly incensed by the play, and once went ballistic when she was asked to portray the character that most resembled herself. "They offered the role of Julie to Ethel, and she took significant umbrage," said Kate Mulgrew, best known as Captain Janeway on "Star Trek: Voyager," who plays Julie in the Ahmanson staging. "She never made her peace with the play."

Perhaps the Barrymores' pique left a curse on the script. Despite its initial success (it ran for 345 performances at Broadway's Selwyn Theatre and was adored by the critics), "The Royal Family's" creators were never quite satisfied with the first production, and subsequent stagings have been problematic. There have been at least two notable productions in the last quarter-century: Ellis Rabb's 1975-76 Broadway revival, which won him a best-director Tony, and a 2002 version at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company that garnered enthusiastic reviews.

"Casting it has always been a challenge, to say the least," said Moore. "That's been historically true with this play. Nobody felt that the original cast was the right one. Some historians feel it never came to full life until the Rabb production in the '70s. It requires actors who are not only stars in their own right, but an ensemble."

Rabb's star-studded cast included Julie Harris, Eva Le Gallienne, George Grizzard and Mary Louise Wilson. In addition to Mulgrew, the Ahmanson staging features Broadway veterans Marian Seldes, a Tony winner, and Charles Kimbrough, a well-known interpreter of A.R. Gurney's quietly desperate characters.


One of the play's thorniest challenges is its structure. "It's a monster," Moore said. "It's written as a series of vignettes. There are only three or four scenes where (the entire cast) is together. It's a very eccentric piece in that way."

"But the vignettes themselves are stunning," said Mulgrew, who remembers the Rabb production vividly. "I thought it was electrifying. The night went like wildfire. At the heart of it is this marvelous family."

Underneath the histrionics and petty bickering that define "The Royal Family's" surface comedy lie some serious issues, Moore and Mulgrew agreed.

"There are several tensions and questions that we can all relate to," Moore said. "Do you live your life for your passion or your paycheck? And does a family stick together, or do (its members) go their separate ways?"

One of the central plot points in the play concerns Julie and her daughter. Both are considering whether to leave show business for the stability of a "normal" existence. That dilemma has assumed sudden relevance in her own life, Mulgrew said. The eldest of Mulgrew's two sons has just decided to become an actor.

"I haven't told him anything but I will say this to you: I'm very excited about it," Mulgrew said. "It stirs up something deep in me.

"It's been a harrowing thing to them to have a mom who's an actress. But obviously he's seen my joy and my passion, and if he could have one-tenth of it, he'll have a good life. My sons were born and raised in the theater; their father is a director." But neither one had ever considered acting as a potential profession, Mulgrew said. She chuckled. "Of course, it would have to happen now."

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