Body Politic Theatre

Charisma is hard to define. Even my dictionary, which provides precise definitions for the most abstract words, begs off by calling charisma a “special quality” that gives an individual influence or authority.

Yet, whether we can define it precisely or not, charisma exists. It’s more than style or class. People who have charisma seem to be animated by a vision that fills them with purpose and adds depth to their character. That’s always impressive, so whether we can define it or not, we still recognize charisma when we see it.

I did not see much charisma in the Body Politic Theatre’s production of The Royal Family. I found lots of style, lots of talent, and even a touch of class here and there, but no sense that the cast members had a vision of what their characters are all about.

With the exception of Pauline Brailsford. As Fanny, the grande dame of the Cavendish clan–a family of nationally famous actors–Brailsford seems firmly focused on the fierce pride and devotion that is driving this old woman back to the stage despite her failing health. For Fanny, acting is a holy mission destined to uplift and ennoble the human race, and that sense of purpose propels her spirit. “He played a full season of 35 weeks,” she says proudly of her late husband’s final days. “Dropped dead on the stage of Macauley’s in Louisville two minutes after the curtain fell on Saturday night, the week we closed. Not only that, but he waited to take four calls.”

This obsessive devotion to the theater is supposed to provide both the humor and the poignancy in The Royal Family, and maybe with a cast attuned to these compulsions, the play would be entertaining.

As the Body Politic production demonstrates, competence is not enough. The cast members are talented, and most give skillful performances, but they don’t seem to be in touch with anything beneath the surface of their characters. Acting, ultimately, is an exercise of the imagination, and these actors, with the exception of Brailsford, have failed to imagine their way into the minds of the characters they portray. No one actually subverts the show, but the show is lackluster and dull. It lacks charisma.

Of course, maybe the show shouldn’t be done at all anymore. There are no more acting dynasties like the Barrymore family–the obvious model for the Cavendish clan–so the topic is anachronistic to begin with. The plot consists of laughable characters thrown into a series of comic situations: Fanny’s vain brother won’t admit he’s too old for certain roles; her daughter Julie is tempted to marry a rich entrepreneur and retire from the stage; Julie’s daughter Gwen quarrels with her stockbroker boyfriend, who’s uncomfortable around actors; Gwen’s brother Tony gets into trouble for seducing the director’s wife. It’s like watching a TV sitcom in which a full season of shows has been crammed into a single episode.

Also, the authors of this play had contradictory tastes; George S. Kaufman’s cynicism clashes with Edna Ferber’s sentimentality, and vice versa. For example, Fanny’s wonderfully cynical line, “marriage isn’t a career, it’s an incident,” is very funny, but it’s wrong coming from a woman who revered her husband. Maybe the opposing viewpoints of the authors gave balance to the play when it opened in 1927, but today, the cynicism is insufficient to generate hearty laughter, and the sentimentality verges on the mawkish.

So what does The Royal Family have to offer? Basically, just a collection of mildly amusing character sketches. Fanny’s daughter Julie (Linda Kimbrough) is at the peak of her career, and about to appear in a play with her daughter Gwen (Janet A. Carr), an up-and-coming actress. Anthony Cavendish, Julie’s brother, has abandoned the stage for Hollywood, but after punching his director, he’s trying to escape the country to avoid a lawsuit. Fanny’s brother, Herbert Dean (James Deuter), refuses to grow old gracefully. Instead, he is trying to get his wife (Joan Spatafora) out of a show he’s in because she looks too old. All the while, the Cavendish family manager, Oscar Wolfe (Larry Brandenburg), presides over the proceedings, trying to bring order out of the perpetual chaos.

The performances are generally solid, and Joe Sadowski’s direction is brisk and animated. Still, The Royal Family is a snooze. Even the cast members appear bored, and that’s ironic, because I suspect actors are the ones who keep this show alive. They must look at all those broad, comic roles and yearn to give them a try.

The problem is that the roles are as shallow as the plot. Consequently, the show may be attractive to actors, but it’s not very attractive to contemporary audiences who can stay home and see the same kind of situation comedy on TV any night of the week.