If there’s one thing that William Luce’s “Barrymore” does, it’s show off Christopher Plummer’s protean thesp talents. But this thin, one-man show — with its one-liners, dirty limericks, meandering anecdotes and unfinished scenes — accomplishes little beyond showcasing its lead. Plotless, its sole point is to flaunt the talents of a great actor, a titan of the theater. Not Barrymore … Plummer. If the life of the great John Barrymore happens to be the convenient vehicle for this exercise, well, so much the better. But let there be no mistake made: The evening belongs to Plummer.
Americans, especially those with a soft spot for film, will best remember Plummer as autocratic Capt. von Trapp in the film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music.” But that’s sort of like recalling that Franklin Roosevelt was once Undersecretary of the Navy. Plummer has been on Broadway since 1954 and has acted with Katherine Cornell, Judith Anderson, Julie Harris, James Earl Jones, Glenda Jackson and Jason Robards. And he has been directed by Eva Le Gallienne, Elia Kazan and Mike Nichols, among many others. So Luce’s play, albeit something of a tip of the hat to the Great Profile, is really more about Christopher Plummer than anything else.
And, indeed, Plummer, who won the Tony for the role, does not disappoint.
He delivers the straight lines and the punch lines with equal aplomb; his timing is impeccable. Here, he gestures wildly and subtly, gives spot-on impersonations, and even makes serious moments in Shakespeare funny. In lesser hands, Luce’s play would fall to pieces, there’s so little to it.
The show opens with a blue-suited Plummer crossing the stage as Barrymore at 60, drunk and disheveled but full of bonhomie. Almost instantly, the fourth wall breaks, as he tells the audience he’s back for a night of Shakespeare. “Richard III,” primarily, but perhaps a bit of “Hamlet,” too. But Barrymore’s famous inability to concentrate (a product of drink) intrudes, and soon nostalgia, reverie and just a touch of regret substitute for Shakespearean scenes.
The actor recalls his equally famous siblings (Lionel and Ethel) and his four ex-wives (none memorable). “I don’t have to tell you divorces cost more than marriages,” he says. “But, God dammit, they’re worth it!” He also chats about his eccentric childhood, which was often less than happy. “Staggering is a sign of strength,” his drunken father was fond of saying. “Only the weak have to be carried home.”
Through all this, a patient prompter, Frank (John Plumpis), unseen until the curtain call, cajoles the once great actor. Get started with the show, he repeatedly urges Barrymore, continually feeding him cues, to little avail. But Frank more often prompts memories, and that keeps this show going. Though only two hours long, Luce’s play has its longueurs, even with the ever-energetic Plummer holding center stage.
The work of set and costume designer Santo Loquasto, whose credits include “Ragtime” and “Grand Hotel,” is understated, yielding rewards gradually. The second-act costumes are the ones to watch for, but to say more would spoil the effect. The set itself is basically a stage with some props, the most amusing of which is a liquor cart from the Algonquin Hotel. Natasha Katz’s lighting is utilitarian, but it’s hard to knock straightforwardness.
It’s tough to say how much credit director Gene Saks, long linked with successful comedies, should receive for Plummer’s excellent timing and delivery. Certainly, there are no false steps here. But perhaps Saks could have tightened Luce’s play. Is an intermission really necessary? Couldn’t some careful trimming have given audiences essentially the same work at 90 minutes?
Frankly, it hardly matters. Audiences will flock for Plummer, as well they should, for here is an actor, much like John Barrymore, who simply adores the spotlight, and one who knows just what to do when he’s in it.