John Barrymore set the Hollywood standard for a certain type of drunken rakishness, defining an image of the actor as charming, self-destructive rogue that continues to this day. Sadly (or not), that’s about the sum total of Barrymore’s legacy, his stage triumphs lost to the past and his film career remembered by few and cherished by fewer. William Luce’s new play “Barrymore” doesn’t add much to our understanding or knowledge of the legendary thespian, and whether it contributes to any affection will depend on one’s tolerance for the charismatic lush type (a romantic notion best left to Barrymore’s own bygone era). But the play, essentially a one-man show, does provide one of our own greats — Christopher Plummer — with a welcome and entertaining return to the New York stage. The performance and Luce’s snappy one-liners make for a pleasant vehicle.
Luce’s writing, never less than amusing and always efficient in sculpting a tale from biographical fact, was better applied to the richer character of Emily Dickinson in “The Belle of Amherst,” the work that pretty much became the benchmark for the one-person bio-play. “Barrymore” falls closer to the playwright’s “Lillian” (about Hellman): fine as far as it goes, even if it goes no farther than a basic common knowledge about its subject. (Play also has the disadvantage of hitting New York so soon after last year’s similar one-man-show “Jack,” starring Nicol Williamson and covering much the same ground).
Like “Lillian,” which starred Zoe Caldwell, “Barrymore” has the great fortune of a fine actor. Plummer nails Barrymore’s charm, a mix of aristocratic flourish and low-rent leanings (the character recites crude limericks with a vocal delivery more associated with Shakespeare). Indeed, so much of the play’s humor relies on the shock of gutter talk regally intoned that the device begins to wear a bit thin.
“Barrymore” takes place just a month before the actor’s death. His ability to remember Shakespeare’s lines all but decimated by years of alcoholism, Barrymore, in natty double-breasted suit, is backstage at a theater (nicely rendered by Santo Loquasto) rehearsing a last-gasp attempt to recreate the stage role that brought him fame, the Bard’s Richard III. Ostensibly there to run lines with a stage manager (Michael Mastro in a vocal, but off-stage, role), Barrymore instead turns to a more pleasant diversion: regaling us with tales about his colorful past (his long-term memory apparently unaffected by the drink).
Wonderfully told (and fluidly staged by director Gene Saks), the anecdotes provide snapshots of Barrymore’s childhood, his siblings (Plummer does terrifically wicked takes on Lionel and Ethel), his rogue of a father, his beloved grandmother and all four of his marriages, or “bus accidents” as Barrymore calls them. Despite his professed love for his wives, the character subscribes to (and the play doesn’t question) the drunkard’s excuse of blaming women for his downfall.
His most affectionate memories are reserved for his long-ago best friend Ned, a young playwright who encouraged the actor to tackle the classics. The tenderness with which he recalls Ned would certainly lead audiences to question Barrymore’s romantic leanings if the play didn’t go to pains to insist on his heterosexuality.
The short second act (“Barrymore” runs at an hour and 40 minutes including a 20-minute intermission) focuses mostly on anecdotes from the actor’s Hollywood period, with the comic tales heightened by the hunchbacked Richard III costume Plummer dons. Throughout both acts, the anecdotes are enlivened by Luce’s funny one-liners and Plummer’s expert delivery of them.
“Our honeymoon seems like only yesterday,” the character says and, without missing a beat adds, “and you know what a lousy day yesterday was.” More often, the jokes are risque: “What were you last in, Mr. Barrymore?” asks a fan. “I believe,” the actor responds, “it was Joan Crawford.”
As good as he is at the comedy, Plummer is equally adept at the pathos — tragedy seems too lofty a description — of the broken man. The audience will know long before the character admits that “Richard III” is a pipedream, that the actor’s glory days are history. “Barrymore” is a congenial reminder of that past, and Plummer makes us care more than John Barrymore ever could.