The Royal Family – Squeaky Queen
A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE
Man, you know you’re going to be in for it when the program lists not one, but two intermissions. Indeed, The Royal Family, playing through tomorrow at Salem Players, is l-o-n-g. I’m a millennial, sure, and attention span, smartphone, blah, blah, blah, but if your play lasts for two hours and forty-five minutes, it better have something to fucking say. And, unfortunately, The Royal Family just doesn’t. Although director John D’Amato notes that the play isn’t performed very often, he appears not to have reflected on why that might be. The show is a thinly fictionalized version of the lives of a family (the Barrymores) that hasn’t been a household name in around sixty years, so, yeah, it’s a little hard to get into. In fact, I would go so far as to call the script deadly dull. It mostly concerns the mild foibles of The Cavendish Clan, a stage acting family, rich to the gills, living in New York. Mother Julie (Helenmary Ball) is at the peak and perhaps end of her storied career, wondering if she missed out on love. Matriarch Fanny (Carol Conley-Evans) wants to keep the torch lit by continuing to perform, even though she’s clearly not well. Daughter Gwen (Heather Goddard) is a fine actor who craves babies more than dressing rooms. Uncle Tony (John Dignam) is a Hollywood man on the run from the press after his latest troubles. Kitty (Anita Spicer-Lane) and Herbert (Ron Zyna) tackier relations of some flavor, look to make a buck off the Cavendish name. The family is surrounded by various managers, boyfriends, household servants. D’Amato (and Tim VanSant, Assistant Director), besides needing to learn to worship at the sacred alter of cutting, isn’t a bad director, especially for his first time out. This material could easily stagnate into a stupor – it’s hard to keep them moving, motivated, and he does it. Instead of identifying clear moments of tension in the script to make it more exciting, though, he leans on his actors to do it for him, which works only sometimes. That isn’t to say there aren’t things to enjoy. The beautiful Carol Conley Evans is a ray of sunshine, here swathed in layers of pink ruffles. Evans is a grande dame of Baltimore theater, making it a winkingly self-referential pleasure to watch her play Fanny Cavendish. Her performance is professional, witty. For a less experienced actor, being chained to that wing back chair for almost all of the first act would have been death but Evans, somehow, makes it dynamic. Helenmary Ball, doing Julie Cavendish, is also looking like a million dollars in a close-cropped copper wig. She has great fun swanning around as Lady of the Manor. Ball conveys a woman who may be past her bloom, but is in no way past her prime. When she yells, “I’m not dead!” at the end of the second act, we believe her. She shimmers and laughs her way around the (rather dim) stage and lights it wherever she goes. Dignam turns in a pretty credible John Barrymore and takes some joy in playing the cad. Anita Spicer-Lane has that knack of making more out of a role than she is given, she has some funny moments as the dour-faced Kitty, especially near the end. And Richard Manichello’s Gilbert Marshall, Julie’s love interest, is a right silver fox, dripping with condescension and arriving right in time to perk up the second act. Heather Goddard is a new actress and, in fact, I believe that this may be her first time on stage. She’s shaky, hard to hear and D’Amato has saddled her with some truly awkward gesturing. It doesn’t help that, unfortunately, her character is supposed to be the best actress of her generation. It’s an irony she could do without. And Ron Zyna appears to choke on every line he says, which may be a character quirk but gets old fast. The set (John D’Amato, Tim VanSant, Don Schwartz and cast) is sturdy and serviceable, if a little worn around the edges. The centerpiece is a truly amazing mahogany Queen Anne sofa, in red velvet, no less. And I liked the chandelier. The lights (Paul Timmel) appear to be doing all they could just to stay on (surely that dimming and the entire back of the stage going dark in the last act couldn’t have been intentional, could it?). Costumes (Trish Morgan) were hit and miss, with some seeming to be out of the actor’s contemporary closets, especially on Goddard, which was a real missed opportunity.
BOTTOM LINE: The Royal Family wins no points for brevity. While the show is long and the story boring, there are performances that keep you engaged, which is saying something. It’s a good effort, for sure, if not a terribly worthwhile one. Here’s hoping the next go-round picks it up a little.
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