Entire contents copyright 2004 by A.S. Waterman
Written by William Luce
Directed by Fred Sullivan, Jr.
John Barrymore........Sam Babbitt
Frank (the Prompter)........Mark McClure
Waiting for the show to start, we stared into the set, a dark, airless garret where elaborate costumes hung like headless ghosts and dingy cloths covered the furniture. Depressing? Not at all. This is home to Every-actor, and Every-audience felt curiously at home. Although it was ten minutes to showtime on a Friday evening, the theater was largely empty. Most of the audience poured in precisely at 8:00 p.m., late because of a parking problem but still stopping to buy a drink or snack in the lobby, many entering en masse with cocktail glasses in hand, in an amazing parallel to the title character's entrance in Act 1. Could director Sullivan have planned this, or does he simply know us too well?
This was the first of many double-takes prompted (pun intended) by this excellent production of William Luce's BARRYMORE. From his tipsy first entrance, this Barrymore carries on an intimate dialog with the audience, engaging us from the beginning. But is his "audience" really there? How could there be an audience in this dingy arena which Barrymore has rented to be coached on his lines for Richard III? In his ongoing and very entertaining dialogue, he clearly sees one. Yet young prompter Frank brushes past us with no acknowledgment, or stands only a scant few inches from an audience member as he speaks to Barrymore. One begins to wonder. What are we? What should we be? Where does the proscenium end?
Director Sullivan never answers that question but continues to fascinate us with it throughout, while raising many more. Of those, many are about the mystique of Barrymore himself. Actor Sam Babbitt is delightful and compelling as Barrymore and as the many characters that Barrymore portrays throughout the evening, including the irreverent reminiscences of Lionel and Ethel Barrymore and other legendary figures whom he brings very much down-to-earth. Although Luce's play has frequently been described as a one-man show with two characters, Mark McClure does an excellent job of making prompter Frank a very intriguing character in his own right, a timid but far from shrinking young man who is well aware of his own critical role in this theatrical equation, even if he never succeeds in helping Barrymore remember one line of Richard III.
This production is a delightful foray through anecdotes, historical truth/mystery and humor that is well worth the visit. It's less a play about Barrymore himself than about the nature of acting, which (although the title character describes it as just "the family business" that he entered reluctantly as the "clown prince") gets its hooks into an actor and never lets go. And like Barrymore, the audience must ever struggle to redefine its role in this, a deliciously compelling process.
See this fine production, and find your own answers to the questions. But remember to come early to avoid any parking difficulties. Audience "call" is at 7:45.
BARRYMORE runs March 18 through April 11, 2004. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.