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George S. Talk of steamships, butlers and telegrams keeps the play safely in the past.

The three-act play performed here with only one intermission focuses on three generations of Cavendish grande dames: Fanny, Julie and Gwen. Her daughter, Julie Kate Mulgrewis an established star who, as she approaches middle age, is considering giving up her fame to become a trophy wife.

The folks at the Ahmanson -- usually a home to coproductions that originate elsewhere -- have mounted this production by themselves. Perhaps the royal family that makes up the Center Theater Group itself amid a generational transition wanted to put its stamp on this classic before turning the company over to its new artistic director next fall. For the most part, however, this revival feels like a museum exhibit.

Watching it is like peering through the glass at a mock-up of an old-fashioned Broadway hit. Everything is in place and looks right -- except that no matter how long you stare, it never comes to life.

These devices are commonly used in musicals, where they are awkward but somewhat, and unfortunately, necessary. At times, her voice suddenly boomed with a bassy tone that made it appear as though her character was possessed.

When not distorted by electrical amplification, Mulgrew sounded as though she was channeling Katharine Hepburn. Gerroll is best in his entrance, where he bursts onstage as a tempest of manic self-obsession.

Occasionally, Gerroll goes a bit over the top, but for the most part he expertly controls his voice and movements, portraying Anthony as man for whom every word and gesture, even in front of his own family, has been meticulously choreographed for dramatic effect. The rest of the cast does an able job, although too often the punch lines are anticipated, subtle jokes are overstated and a general sense of ease is assumed, as if the play is such a classic that it will get laughs regardless of effort.

Director Tom Moore clearly wants to capture the madcap frenzy associated with this type of play, but besides encouraging histrionics, his only real directorial touch is to populate the stage with as many dogs as possible. It must be said that the dogs consistently delighted the audience, even on occasion pulling focus from the scene being performed.

However, no one onstage -- human or canine -- is able to steal a scene from Seldes, who plays the central role of Fanny. Seldes, like Fanny, is a legendary stage presence.

Whenever she makes an entrance, she gives the proceedings an instant jolt of authenticity. Despite this, Seldes is a bit miscast.

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Her strength has always been her sincerity, and unfortunately, Fanny Cavendish is a role that is anything but sincere. Still, Seldes is a pro and makes the best of things, especially toward the end of the production, when Fanny silently acts out a scene from her next play. Seldes is dazzling here as she manages to evoke both joy and tragedy without saying a word.

It was rather shocking, then, that the final curtain call went not to Seldes -- as custom would have it -- but to the performing pooches, who were led out for bows by members of the company. When: Tuesdays to Saturdays, 8 p. By George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. Directed by Tom Moore.

Sets by Douglas W. Costumes by Robert Blackman. Lighting by Duane Schuler. Sound by Jon Gottlieb. Original music by Corey Hirsch.

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