Plumbing the Depths of Barrymore's Soul

A wavering light spins on the dark stage floor as an actor's voice booms from the sound system, reciting a speech from Antony and Cleopatra. "Come, let us have one more gaudy night," the voice beseeches. The stage lights rise and the actor staggers into view, pulling a costume rack. He notices the audience, dances a lithe, partly drunken jig toward the front of the stage, and then undercuts Shakespeare's poetry with a bawdy limerick.

The actor is Christopher Plummer, playing another actor -- the restless, enigmatic John Barrymore. By the last beat of that limerick both men have us completely in their power.

During two dazzling, quicksilver acts in William Luce's latest biographical drama Barrymore, Plummer seduces us as the beguiling yet reckless stage and film star. Played by Plummer as an irrepressible raconteur, Barrymore digresses incessantly while attempting to remember the text of Richard III. He zings one-liners; waxes lyrical about alcohol; and spins anecdotes about his famous family, his failed marriages, Broadway, and Hollywood. He also astutely mimics everyone from New York journalists to his brother Lionel and sister Ethel to Samuel Goldwyn and Louella Parsons. The evening unfolds like a testimony crossed with a stand-up routine -- delivered by a man coming to terms with having wasted his life, but who still cannot refrain from sharing one more hilarious scrape. Throughout, Plummer's vocal resonance, phrasing, and rolling Rs drive home the image of someone in love with the sound of his own voice. And Plummer's compassion for the character he portrays causes us to fall in love with the troubled Barrymore as well.

On national tour at the Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale through this weekend, the play takes place in 1942, one month before Barrymore's death. The actor has rented a seedy New York theater for a single night in order to run through Richard III with the help of a prompter (played by Michael Mastro, whom we hear from the wings but never see). Having once brought audiences to their knees as the murderous tyrant, Barrymore hopes to revive his stalled stage career by playing the king once again. But after a lifetime of relentless drinking and carousing, lines from Richard are scrambled in his mind with those from Hamlet, Othello, and Antony and Cleopatra.

A member of an English-American theater dynasty whose roots on his mother's side go back to the Elizabethan stage, Barrymore led a glittering yet debauched life. The younger brother of Ethel and Lionel, Jack, as he was called, was considered the most gifted of the three siblings. He started his career in melodrama but turned to classical theater in Richard III, followed by Hamlet. Although acclaimed as the greatest Hamlet of his era, he was notoriously undisciplined and ambivalent about his professional success ("Acting isn't an art," he notes in the play. "It's the junk pile of all the arts.") Deploring the effort required of long stage runs, he turned, post-Hamlet, to less-taxing, more lucrative film work. Whatever distinction his talent earned him, however, was rivaled by his reputation as an out-of-control and self-destructive alcoholic.

The contradiction between high art and the low road in Barrymore's life runs like a refrain throughout Luce's writing and is underscored by Gene Sak's flawless direction and Plummer's spellbinding performance. Over and over again, the script counteracts the noble with the vulgar, the tragic with the ridiculous: At the close of Act One, after delivering stirring lines from Richard III, Plummer as Barrymore looks around and asks for directions to the toilet; dressed as Richard at the start of Act Two, complete with hunchback, leotards, page-boy wig, and embittered scowl, Barrymore broodingly seats himself on a throne, then surprises the audience by irreverently chanting a children's rhyme.

Luce's peaks-and-valleys writing style does more than just mirror the disparities in Barrymore's personality. It prevents us from dwelling too long on the maudlin details of Jack's personal misery. When things get too intense or sad, we are pulled back by a joke, as if Luce has set out to prove the statement that Barrymore makes early in the show: "Let me disabuse you of the notion that Jack Barrymore is a tragic figure," the character asserts. "I've had a hell of a life." In fact, writer, director, and actor try a tad too hard at times to ennoble Jack, perhaps out of respect for his talents or because of a fascination with his larger-than-life appetites.

This ebb and flow of the serious and the jocular also constitutes what works and what doesn't work in the script. On one hand, the piece boasts a rhythmic lyricism, reminiscent of a musical composition with repeating themes. On the other hand, Barrymore doesn't travel very far dramatically. We are taken to a certain place emotionally by the end of Act One as Barrymore poignantly recalls the grandmother who raised him; and we are almost at the exact same place by the end of Act Two, with more Mum-Mum memories, although the character has reckoned somewhat with his fall from grace over the years. But not much.

Such a poetic, as opposed to dramatic, approach might have defeated a less charismatic actor, but Plummer brings enormous vitality to this mesmerizing star turn. So much so that the two-act, two-hour play flies by too quickly. When Plummer as Barrymore slips off-stage at the end with as much dignity as a broken man can muster, we long for both men to return and regale us with more.

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