note: entire contents copyright 19967by Beverly Creasey
Legends abound about the great American actor John Barrymore. Many books as well: His brother Lionel's biography, Gene Fowler's tome "Good Night, Sweet Prince," John Kobler's "Damned in Paradise" --- and plays too, about the fallen matinee idol: "The Royal Family", "Jack". Now William Luce (author of plays about Emily Dickinson, Lillian Hellman and Isak Dinesen) brings us an entry called "Barrymore", up at the Colonial prior to its opening on Broadway in March.
Luce's essentially one-man play stars Christopher Plummer as a dying but still raging Barrymore. It's a month before his untimely death (at age 59 from the ravages of alcoholism), and the dissipated actor has paid his own money to mount a "comeback" production of his triumphant "Richard III".
Barrymore tries his damnedest to run lines with thenhelp of an offstage prompter (Michael Mastro) but he'd rather reminisce, and besides, the memories intrude even when he wishes they wouldn't. He is able to call up smidgeons of "Richard" and "Hamlet" (pure heaven) but the bulk of Luce's drama is more vaudevillian (funny but crass) than Shakespearean
Luce mixes bawdy stories about ex-wives (there were four) and whores (probably more than four) with psychological insights (Barrymore's father dies from a lethal combination of alcoholism and syphilis) and a little Gilbert & Sullivan (specifically "The Mikado"). Although the latter seems out of place, it's actually quite fitting since Barrymore experienced one of his first successes in Gilbert's "The Fortune Hunter".
The evening is long on vulgar songs, tall tales and naughty verse...and short on Barrymore's acknowledged genius (granted, an= rough task for a playwright). Anyone who's seen his films, even an exquisite self-parody like his screwball performance in "Dinner at Eight", can imagine the brilliance of a stage career whichnincluded 101 performances of "Hamlet" --- breaking Edwin Booth's record of 100.
Luce establishes the tenor of his portrait in Barrymore's opening lines, borrowed from Shakespeare. He enters, bottle in hand, to tell us he intends to "mock the midnight bell". Plummer gives a bravura performance, from stagger to stark still, delivering stand-up ("If I don't pay alimony, can my wives repossess me?") as if punchlines were truly a surprise. Director Gene Saks keeps the pace brish except for Barrymore's one moment of sorrow, which seemed resolved too quickly.
Plummer manages to give the actor a life beneath the
bravado; he lets us see the pain underneath the posturing.
Barrymore is having us on for most of the play but he knows, on
some level, that midnight is approaching fast. His great regret,
he "confesses", eyes twinkling, is not to have been able to sit in
an audience and see himself perform.