Parallel lives infuse 'Barrymore' Theater: Early in his career, Christopher Plummer was compared to the legendary star. Now, at 67, Plummer portrays him onstage, and the similarities seem to have multiplied.

February 16, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The subject is John Barrymore and Christopher Plummer.

Here's the quiz. Which actor has or had:

Major success in the title roles of "Richard III" and "Hamlet"?

A personal life earmarked by alcohol and multiple marriages?

A film career considered less distinguished than his stage work?

A daughter who followed in her father's career footsteps?

If you answered "both" to each question, you will appreciate the coup of casting Plummer in the new William Luce play, "Barrymore," which begins a pre-Broadway run at the Mechanic Theatre Tuesday.

"The corollaries are there," admits Luce. "Christopher was the one we really wanted."

Nor does Plummer deny the comparisons, which, in terms of talent, were also pointed out by critics early in his career, particularly in reference to his performances of "Hamlet" in the early 1960s.

"[The comparisons] happened when I was so young," Plummer says graciously. "I don't think that they continued very much after I was in my late 30s. I was flattered by them. Most of them were because I had a slight physical resemblance to him and moved with the same speed, and I'm an athlete. I didn't think of Barrymore much at all after a while.

But then he adds, "I suppose subconsciously he's always there."

Lately, of course, Barrymore has also been there consciously, as Plummer has been honing Luce's nearly one-man show -- there's also an off-stage character of a prompter -- on the road.

Though Plummer never saw Barrymore in person -- "I was much too young to see him on stage. I was 12 when he died," the 67-year-old actor quickly explains -- he gained an early appreciation through Gene Fowler's 1943 biography, "Good Night, Sweet Prince," which Plummer read as a teen-ager.

"It certainly ignited those desires to be an actor, and I think it did a lot for my whole generation of actors," he says. "It was a book about a wonderful personality who was colorful and glamorous and also extraordinarily gifted, and was able to live the life of Riley at the same time -- being outrageously naughty and doing all the rebellious things that are attractive to the young. It inspired us to [emulate] a devil-may-care roguish character who could always get away with being marvelous if he wanted to."

Although Plummer has given up hard liquor in favor of wine, he acknowledges that there was a time when he and a group of his peers -- such as Richard Burton, Jason Robards and Peter O'Toole -- took Barrymore's devil-may-care credo to heart.

"That whole group, when it was fashionable to drink -- in the '50s, the first part of the '60s -- it was kind of like a fraternity. You had to pass a certain test. If you could get drunk and come the next day with a hangover but still get through the day marvelously, then you were a man, my son. The same thing happened in [Barrymore's] time. There was a sort of derring-do about it. Let's see how far we can go into disaster and then pull it off. We all tried to get too near the flame."

In fine fettle

That Plummer tempered his derring-do -- not only by toning down the alcohol but also by remaining married to his third wife for 26 years now -- may help explain why he's in fine enough fettle to take on the challenge of portraying a broken man.

And yet, reading Fowler's vintage biography, you can't help but notice the similarities. Both Barrymore and Plummer, for example, originally intended to pursue another branch of the arts; Barrymore wanted to be a visual artist and Plummer a pianist. Both also shared a penchant for redecorating and surrounding themselves with beautiful things. For Plummer and his wife, Elaine Taylor, this has taken the form of renovating old houses, living in them for a while and then selling them, a practice he says "the market doesn't allow" anymore.

Then there are the ways Barrymore and Plummer have reacted to difficulties with the audience. Barrymore, for instance, responded instantly and without mercy to coughers -- chiding them from the stage, recommending a cure or even taking part in the coughing himself.

Fowler also reports that once during "Richard III," when a theatergoer in the balcony laughed after the line, "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" Barrymore replied -- in appropriate iambic pentameter -- "Make haste, and saddle yonder braying ass!"

Plummer adds a Barrymore story of his own to this catalog -- an anecdote about the legendary actor picking up a fish from the prop table and tossing it at some coughers with the rebuke: "Chew on that, you walruses, while I finish the libretto."

Swordplay in the audience

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