George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's The Royal Family has many ingredients familiar at American Players Theatre, at least in its non-Shakespeare mode: a posh Jazz Age setting, witty banter, and laughs mixed with poignancy. But that's part of the problem: The Royal Family, which opened Saturday night in the Spring Green company's outdoor amphitheater, feels like a predictable choice. It stretches neither its cast nor its audience, and, for a company of APT's caliber, that's a disappointment.
Loosely based on the Barrymores, the Cavendishes of the play are a wealthy but bohemian acting clan. Julie (Tracy Michelle Arnold) is the toast of Broadway and much in demand. Her mother, Fanny (Sarah Day), still thirsts at taking her show on the road. And Julie's daughter, Gwen (Ally Carey), is at the cusp of adulthood, with a glittering career to look forward to.
In their grand New York apartment, they talk with each other, boss their servants around, and take visitors, such as their trusted manager and the wacky, bickering Deans. Herbert Dean (Jonathan Smoots), Fanny's brother, worries that he's getting too long in the tooth to stay viable in the theater. His wife, Kitty, is a shrewish vamp desperate for a role but short on talent. Played hilariously by Colleen Madden, Kitty is a scene-stealer. Madden always knows when less is more (a silent glower that could melt stone) and when more is more.
The biggest problem with The Royal Family is its script, which prefers to make its points in the most obvious way, simply by telling us. In Act II, Fanny delivers an impassioned speech on the value of a theatrical life, and the portrait of her late husband -- who acted until his dying day -- looms over the proceedings. But we're left wondering why the Cavendishes are so sure anyone in their line will be a brilliant actor (unless, like royalty, it's merely an accident of birth).
I know that director Laura Gordon is capable of great things, because I've seen them at APT and elsewhere. She's smart and versatile and I'll gladly see what she directs in the future. Despite a formidable cast (Marcus Truschinski deserves special note for his wonderfully hammy role as a scandal-ridden actor), the unfortunate fact is that there are funnier drawing-room comedies and more insightful plays about life on the stage. APT has done some of them in recent years, including Noel Coward's Hay Fever (written just a few years earlier than The Royal Family) and the one-man show In Acting Shakespeare, a hit from the 2009 season that is being revived in a modified form this year.
While there's certainly a place for more accessible work at APT, The Royal Family never truly achieves lift-off.