January 16, 2002: Kaufman and Ferber, The Royal Family

Haymarket Theatre. Matinee.

A showcase for Judi Dench, as Fanny Cavendish — ”Mother” Cavendish, an epithet she abhors but one that fits her character as grande dame and queen mother of this theatrical dynasty, modeled on the real-life Barrymores, Ethel, Lionel, and John, but with some differences and some conflation of ages to make the generations easier to grasp. There are some strong actors, notably Antony Cavendish as played by Toby Stephens, but there is some unevenness — and some of the “American” accents are just terrible (a fact especially glaring after Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, where they were all uniformly good-to-excellent). The most egregious offender was Philip Voss as Oscar Wolf (a fictional portrait of the impresario Charles Frohman), whose New York Yiddish accent was well-nigh incomprehensible. Judi Dench’s was fine, as was Toby Stephens’s. It’s an especially demanding call, this play’s characters, on British actors, because one expects the Cavendishes to speak an articulate “standard English” — the American version, the speech of, say, actresses from Kathryn Cornell to Irene Worth, a characteristically upper-class voice quite different from a New York socialite’s, let alone such versions of upper-class patois as spoken by Ted Kennedy. Many British actors, faced with this challenge, err too far in the other extreme of slow, broad utterance to make sure they sound “American” and not British — English, that is. Philip Voss sounded more like an East End tailor than a New York producer. (And nobody, but nobody, knows how to say “New York” like a New Yorker: “Noo Yawk.”

Anyway, it was worth seeing just to watch Judy Dench do something she could do blindfolded. No strain here; but her performance, perhaps because it was a matinee, was a little tame; she may have been saving herself for the evening. All the same, we got from her what we always get: a fully thought-out, well-rehearsed, beautifully timed and well articulated yet quite natural perform­ance, from an actress who almost instinctively knows how big, gesturally speaking, is big enough and who never over-does it.

Peter Hall as director, also, is doing something he can do blindfolded. The articulation of the action, the pace, the blocking, are all superb. So is the setting, by Anthony Ward, a stupendously tall and expansive central hallway with a staircase that begins downstage left, circles up, and ends with entrances to two bedrooms, one of them being almost downstage right, at the height of, it seemed, twenty feet.

George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s play has all the marks of a Kaufman comedy, including his characteristic warm-hearted endorsement of idiosyncrasy and eccentricity and his scorn for money-grubbers whose metier is the boring workaday world of getting and spending. The disarray of the lives of Kaufman’s Chosen is no prelude to disaster, but rather a predictor of their survival despite all the obstacles — because they know where their hearts really live. In the case of this play (as, implicitly, in so many others), it is in “The Theeatah,” with its irresistible, magnetic attraction. Glenn Cavendish can marry a stockbroker if she wants to, and Julie Cavendish can plan a wedding with a millionaire in emeralds, but the lure of a new play cannot be fought against for long. In the case of Emily Blunt, who plays the youngest member of the Cavendish dynasty, one concludes she had better go ahead and abandon the stage in favor of stockbroker paradise; she is evidently not to the manor born. And Joy Richardson, who plays the black maid-of-all-work Della, has no idea what an American “Negro” accent is. But I’m back to my principal complaint here. Finally, I have a low tolerance of voices that are not up to the mark; and, unlike my reaction to the latest Noel Coward play, I come away from a Kaufman opus wondering why I always conclude that there is no there there. Clearly, Kaufman and Ferber didn’t know how to end this play, nearly plot-less as it is. So they kill off “Mother” Cavendish, who falls senseless into a chair at the end, the victim of a stroke-of-the-pen. It’s a somber note completely out of place in this knock-about comedy. Surely they could’ve thought of something better than this?


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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