Powerful gusts of fabulosity must whip around the stage to blow the scent of mothballs off a comedy like The Royal Family. It's an antique by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, one that doesn't hold up as well as some of its contemporaries. Any successful revival had better be peopled with dazzling actors, designed with impeccable attention to detail and directed at a dizzying pace.
What makes The Royal Family a royal letdown at Theatre Three, where the play has just opened the new season, is a production in which too many performances fizzle instead of dazzle, and whose three acts slog by at a dozy, not dizzying, speed. Director Jac Alder has treated the piece with too much reverence and not enough inspiration. He allows his cast of 14 to settle into droning conversational roars broken only by the appearance of the one actor who hits the top of the fabulosity meter and saves the show from near-disaster.
That actor is Jack Foltyn, a New York University grad making his Theatre Three debut in the role of Tony Cavendish, a swashbuckling leading man meant to remind audiences way back when of Broadway star John Barrymore. Striking poses and twirling his lithe body about the set like a young Kevin Kline (in his comedy prime), Foltyn shakes some real excitement into The Royal Family. When he's onstage, the play comes alive with manic, madcap energy. In the zany, slap-happy style of Marx Brothers movies—Coconuts and Animal Crackers were written by Kaufman—Foltyn attacks every moment he's on as if the entire play were about his character. If only. When he exits with a crazy flourish (and to appreciative applause at the preview reviewed), it's back to sleepy time.
Think of The Royal Family as the Entourage of 1927, a comic send-up of a famous show business family and their helpers and hangers-on. Based loosely on three generations of Barrymores (they'd be the great-grand-actors of actress Drew), the play, set in the sprawling Cavendish apartment in Manhattan (designed with less-than-luxe features by Alder), keeps its characters in a constant state of chaos.
Grandmother Fanny Cavendish (played at T3 by Carolyn Wickwire) is coming off a two-year illness and hinting at going back on the road in one of her warhorse starring vehicles, though the rest of the family knows she's not up to it. Daughter Julie (Morgana Shaw) in her 40s is the reigning Broadway diva, squandering money on a lavish lifestyle in which caviar is a food group. Julie's 18-year-old daughter Gwen (Hilary Couch) is engaged to a handsome and wealthy non-actor (Thiago Martins), but is conflicted about leaving the family profession just as she's being offered good ingénue roles. "Your mother and I both got married," chides Fanny, "but we didn't drop more important things to do it."
The biggest star of them all is temperamental Tony. He's bolted Broadway for a fat Hollywood deal, but in the middle of a movie shoot has punched out the director, jilted a Polish fiancée and returned to the Cavendish digs to hide from lawyers and the tabloid press. Tony's hammy entrances and loopy, leaping exits are high-larious points in a play that otherwise depends on characters sitting on drawing room chairs holding endless, humorless conversations about the merits of the theatuh.
Lacking the zingy wit of The Man Who Came to Dinner and with little of the sexy-bitchy all-girl swagger of Stage Door, two more "backstage comedies" co-written by Kaufman, The Royal Family bogs down as a verbose period piece about a lot of unlikable egocentrics. The first act is a bustle of ringing doorbells, jangling telephones and servants breathlessly hustling up and down the stairs as the Cavendishes swan in one by one. None of that is funny, just forced. Act 2 introduces minor diversions but few chuckles. Act 3, a year later in the play's timeline, gets the family back together in time for a dramatic death scene—always a fun way to wrap up a comedy.
To keep the creaky old play interesting for a contemporary viewer, every performance should crackle. But except for Foltyn's high-voltage turn as Tony—he's so good he seems to be in a different play altogether—almost all of the Theatre Three cast is on half-power and a half-step behind.
As Fanny, Wickwire, who does bear a passing resemblance to Ethel Barrymore, is plopped on a settee to dispense acid one-liners that often are lost in the din of overlapping dialogue. She's never quite grand enough to be a grand dame of the American stage.
Playing Julie, Morgana Shaw is still channeling Bette Davis from the one-woman show she did at Theatre Too last year. The face of the pretty actress is obscured by a Louise Brooks-style wig that hangs down over her eyes and covers her cheeks. She also lacks the star quality to be believable as the toast of Broadway. And somebody should have taught her how to pronounce "Pago Pago."
Jerry Crow, as Fanny's brother Herbert, the only bad actor in the extended Cavendish clan, gets nowhere near the outsized vanity of his character. Herbert's the "Johnny Drama," destined to work in frowned-upon vaudeville to make a buck. Playing his unpopular actress-wife Kitty, Leslie Turner would go unnoticed if it weren't for her garish frocks by costume designer Michael Robinson. These are not dresses; they're upholstery.
The second-best work in this Royal Family is by Robert Grossman as Oscar Wolfe, the family's old Jewish manager who is loyal to a fault. With a voice that sounds as if he gargles with bathtub gin, Grossman commands the stage and knows how to play a line and a look for a laugh.
So many productions at this theater suffer from a lack of attention to detail: cheap wigs, ill-conceived costumes, hodge-podge set pieces, uneven casting. All of those things mar the current show. What a different experience it might have been had Theatre Three given The Royal Family the royal treatment.
Romeo and Juliet, back again so soon? Produced full-length and full-out with lavish costumes and set earlier this summer by Fort Worth's TCU-funded Trinity Shakespeare Festival, the Bard's horny teenage lovers now return in modern street clothes at The Dallas Hub Theater in Deep Ellum. In a no-budget, abbreviated version by San Francisco dramaturg David Hundsness, the kids get from love at first sight at the Capulet ball to their dual suicides in the Capulet tomb in less than two hours.
Big snaps for brevity, but only a half-snap for the quality of acting in the production directed by David Lee Kelting for the Shane Arts Theatrical Ensemble Rep company. College student Travis McClung is a sexy-sweet Romeo, bringing a fresh, clear-voiced delivery to the familiar speeches. He knows how to talk the talk without rushing or garbling. As Juliet, recent high school grad Rachael Bower is an attractive amateur but is nowhere near ready to play the emotions of the role. Everyone else in the 11-member cast yells and stalks the stage in their cargo shorts and flip-flops looking like drunken tourists who've lost their wallets.
Just as it's getting really bad, though, it's over. It's Shakespeare so short there's time left on the parking meter.