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LETTERS TO EDITOR
By Elyse Sommer
I think there should be a separate Tony awards category for the one-person theater pieces that have proliferated in recent years. Mono-Drama would be the most all-embracing since it would include performance pieces like Fiona Shaw's recent less-than-an-hour-long dramatic reading of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. Biographical Drama or Staged Memoir would apply to the most common and popular permutations. Whatever the genre's official title, it could then be judged on its own terms--how well it sustains dramatic momentum with a single character, how or if it gives audiences the sense of a "full" play--and, where the subject is a historical figure, how it measures up as an accurate and enlightening biographical portrait.
Barrymore which opened this week at the Music Box is one of the most compelling examples of the genre. Judged as a play alongside dramas with more than one actor to engage the audience's emotions and sustain the momentum, it falls short. Judged as a performance piece, showcasing the talents of its star, Christopher Plummer, it is highly entertaining and surprisingly satisfying theater evening . Why surprising? Haven't we all heard the story of John Barrymore who drowned his brilliant acting talent in too much liquor and a catastrophic love life? In fact, wasn't it already done, and underwhelmingly so by Nicol Williamson? True on both counts. What's more William Luce, who wrote the script, adds little to the known facts. By focusing upon the Barrymore known as the "clown prince" of the royal family of the theater, however, he has provided Christopher Plummer, one of our foremost classical thespians, with an opportunity to show off his formidable comedic talents.
And there's the surprise.
Plummer tosses off one-liners, songs and limericks-- many of them unquotably risqué--all with perfect timing and devilish dash. To round out the jokes and songs, there are several priceless bits of mimicry--notably send ups of the silent actor John Gilbert, gossip columnist Louella Parsons and Barrymore's famous siblings, Lionel and Ethel. This humorous ramble around the nooks and crannies of Barrymore's personal and professional life, does have a smattering of Barrymore/Plummer as the bard's disciple, including the Hamlet's "to be or not to be" speech. There are also enough meaningful pauses to give us a glimpse of the demon-haunted man beneath the actor making this half-hearted, jokey stab at recapturing his past. On balance though, what the Bard promises, the jokester ends up delivering--for example, at the beginning of Act 2, Richard thumps his way to the throne but instead of a Shakespearian phrase, gives us "Winken, blinken and nod." Jester or Shakespearian, when you put it all together the term tour de force seems coined for this performance.
The pretense for Barrymore's presence on stage is imagined by Luce, but probably based on Barrymore's last brief Broadway appearance. As Luce envisions it, Barrymore, his career at its nadir has rented a theater for a night to test out a comeback production of one of his past triumphs, Richard III. To bolster his alcohol-numbed memory, he's hired Frank (played by a never seen Michael Mastro), to prompt him--and as it turns out, cajole him past his rambling reminiscences and darker moments. The time frame is 1942, six months after Pearl Harbor. Barrymore a.k.a. Plummer is wryly aware that his effort to revive his "limp career" is not very important in a world filled with horror.
The event which probably inspired Luce was Barrymore's actual comeback of sorts in 1940 at the Belasco Theater. The vehicle was a play called My Dear Children which burlesqued his career. As Brooks Atkinson describes this in his theatrical history, Broadway, "Although My Dear Children was a cheap play Barrymore gave it a first-rate performance, in a light key of derision and mockery. . .although he looked ravaged and old, he owned the stage." While Barrymore always grew restless during long runs, this one closed after four months because he was too weak and sick to continue, though unlike the attempt to revive his role as Richard, the less distinguished play did accomplish what he set out to do.
No review of Barrymore would be complete without crediting Gene Saks for his well-paced direction and Santo Loquasto for his costumes and handsome set. The lush shades of brown, especially that velvet tie-back stage curtain evoke a whole world of grand and, alas, by-gone theater.
In the final analysis, this is very much a star-driven one-man show--(as opposed by one-person shows written to showcase an as yet not so brillian career--i.e. Sherry Glaser's Family Secrets.) During his days as a star, John Barrymore had a reputation as a notorious scene stealer, but he's got nothing on his current interpreter. Your Music Box, may read Barrymore, but the show belongs to Plummer.