Anyone familiar with Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum -- the scenic Topanga Canyon outdoor theater operated by the late actor’s family -- will immediately appreciate the slyly apropos casting for its charming revival of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s “The Royal Family.”
Though this 1927 satirical portrait of a showbiz dynasty was modeled on the contemporaneous Barrymores, some foibles never go out of style -- and who better to illustrate them than an ensemble bonded in real life by DNA, marriage and decades of close collaboration?
Life and art imitating each other on multiple levels make this an especially touching choice for the company’s 40th repertory season. The production features Theatricum matriarch Ellen Geer as Fanny, the grande dame of the play’s highly theatrical Cavendish clan; Ellen’s younger sister Melora Marshall as Fanny’s Broadway diva daughter Julie; Ellen’s daughter Willow playing Fanny’s granddaughter Gwen; and daughter-in-law Abby Craden as Fanny’s sister-in-law.
Toss in veteran company members Aaron Hendry as Julie’s swashbuckling movie star brother Tony and Alan Blumenfield as their long-suffering producer, and you couldn’t ask for a more tightly knit cast.
The rustic, unpretentious Theatricum environs may be far from the Cavendish’s sophisticated Broadway domain, but the Geers and their extended family nail the quirks, insecurities and narcissism that make Kaufman and Ferber’s characters so vivid and engaging. The Cavendishes relish performing for one another as much as they do for their theater audiences, and some of their most amusing predicaments stem from their inability to separate their posturing from their own true feelings.
These polished performances keep the laughs coming even when the creaky plot provides little more than pretext for the characters’ self-created histrionics.
There are more accomplished “insider” plays about the theater world, but “The Royal Family” has a unique affection for its subject that director Susan Angelo and her large, energetic cast poignantly bring to life: the passionate devotion to the art of theater that drives these actors and redeems their comic excesses.
“The Royal Family,” Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. Runs in repertory through Sept. 28, check site for schedule. $25-$35. (310) 455-3723 or www.theatricum.com. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun