George S. Kaufman could write splendidly funny plays about bevies of eccentrics, and Douglas C. Wager has directed many of them over the years with sparkling success. Maybe it's Edna Ferber, Kaufman's co-author on "The Royal Family," which opened Friday at Arena Stage, who trips them both up here. The play isn't Kaufman's usual spring-heeled nonsense--it's heavy and sentimental, a reverential comedy about the theater, and Wager can't get it to do much other than drag around the stage.

The play's Cavendish acting clan is based on the famous Barrymore family, of whom only John is generally known today. Ham, genius and excessive personality, John has inspired a one-man show ("Barrymore," seen here recently with Christopher Plummer) as well as appeared in ghost form in "I Hate Hamlet." It's no surprise that Anthony Cavendish, the character based on him, is the liveliest thing in "The Royal Family." Plummeting in from Hollywood after having assaulted his director, he stalks, droops, rants and charms his way across the stage, leveling everyone in his path.

Anthony is played by the brilliant comic actor J. Fred Shiffman, a larger-than-life performer himself, and whenever he's on, the evening gains some brio and satirical snap. Then he exits, and we're left maundering around with the rest of the Cavendishes, a dull group of self-involved sillies.

In their fashionable New York town house (lushly designed by Zack Brown, who also did the handsome costumes) the Cavendishes undergo a series of crises. Matriarch Fanny (DeAnn Mears) is in ill health. Reigning queen of the theater Julia (Kate Skinner) is being driven crazy by her histrionic family, even though she can out-dramatize them all in a pinch. And her daughter, up-and-coming ingenue Gwen (Melinda Page Hamilton), is contemplating giving up her sacred career for love.

Also dashing in and out are vain actor Herbert Dean (Ross Bickell) and his silly actress wife, Kitty (Brigid Cleary), impresario Oscar Wolfe (Richard Russell Ramos), and various fiancees and wooers. There's a lot of startled-henhouse flurrying about, impassioned quarrels and effusive reconciliations, tantrums and poetic reminiscence. A lot appears to be going on--the stage is always in motion--but nothing much happens.

In 1927, the roman a clef aspects of the script may have intrigued audiences fascinated by the Barrymores, but the play needs to stand on its own today, and it doesn't. Except for Anthony, the Cavendishes are treated with indulgent tenderness--and a play about egotists that isn't satirical is rough going for an audience.

Self-congratulatory cuteness mars the characters in other Kaufman plays, but in those, his roughhouse comic energy drives things forward so fast we don't have time to find the people more than momentarily annoying. In contrast, "The Royal Family" is flat-footed and dully paced, full of scenes of people going on and on about trivialities.

A comic master in his own right, Wager brings his considerable charm to bear on the production. He gets some laughs out of the play, but even he can't make it light on its feet. It sags in his arms, refusing to dance.

The Royal Family, by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. Directed by Douglas C. Wager. Lighting, Nancy Schertler; sound, Susan White; fights, Michael Jerome Johnson. With Aakhu TuahNera Freeman, Timmy Ray James, Joseph Knight, Kevin Reese, Michael Jerome Johnson, Ted McAdams, Conrad Feininger, Mitter Bakshi, Brook Butterworth. At Arena Stage's Fichandler Theater through Nov. 21. Call 202-488-3300.

CAPTION: Gilbert Marshall (Conrad Feininger) pays homage to the reigning queen of the theater, Julia Cavendish (Kate Skinner).

CAPTION: J. Fred Shiffman, as the John Barrymore character Anthony Cavendish, adds humor and snap to an otherwise dull play.