What a piece of work is an actor Review: 'Barrymore' lets Christopher Plummer revel in his time upon the stage.

February 20, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

A great actor portraying a great actor.

That's the gist of "Barrymore" -- William Luce's biographical drama starring Christopher Plummer as John Barrymore.

But while this nearly one-man show -- which is playing a pre-Broadway run at the Mechanic Theatre -- pays homage to the late legendary leading man, it is by no means a reverent homage.

Plummer makes his staggering entrance pushing a costume rack and singing a boozy rendition of "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo." Dressed in a navy double-breasted suit with broad-brimmed fedora over his wavy gray hair, he is the incarnation of dissolute elegance -- the sort of over-the-hill, larger-than-life celebrity you would stare at in awe, and perhaps disbelief, but not dare approach.

He immediately launches into the first of many bawdy jokes that punctuate Luce's script. Does this constitute smashing a matinee idol in the great temple of theater? Not at all. As Plummer's character reminds us, Barrymore began his career not as a serious classical actor, but in light trifles, which he TC dismisses here as one "cow pie after another." And, as he says, in an often quoted description of his place in the Barrymore acting dynasty -- which extends from his grandmother, the great 19th-century comedian Mrs. John Drew, to his granddaughter, Drew Barrymore -- "We were the theater's royal family, and I was the clown prince."

So, there is biographical justification for these hammy shenanigans, which also give Plummer a chance to demonstrate how Barrymore revels in the joy of entertaining an audience. Luce justifies the audience's presence by establishing the premise that in 1942, shortly before his death, Barrymore has rented a Broadway theater for one night to rehearse his lines for a revival of his 1920 career-making title role of Richard III. We are presumably an invited audience, including potential backers. The premise also explains why this isn't quite a one-man show; Michael Mastro plays the off-stage character of a prompter, who tries to coax, encourage and eventually bully Barrymore into concentrating on "Richard III."

Never mind that a comeback of this sort was never attempted; Barrymore was hardly in shape to consider it at that late point in his life. It's an adequate format for presenting choice tidbits from Barrymore's colorful life, and in the process, it allows Plummer to demonstrate an acting range that only a legendary actor in his own right can command.

And make no doubt about it. Plummer exults in this role and gives the kind of performance that theater-loving fans exult in as well. Regaling us with the high and low points of Barrymore's past, he imitates an entire cast of characters -- from serious-minded sister Ethel and wheelchair-bound brother Lionel, to snooty gossip columnist Louella Parsons ("Jack Barrymore, will you kindly remember that I'm a lady?" huffs Parsons. "Your secret is safe with me," he replies). There's even a parrot he taught to spout profanity.

Yet for all his high jinks, when he quietly delivers two of Hamlet's most famous speeches -- "To be, or not to be" and "What a piece of work is a man!" -- the sheer majesty and mastery render actor (Plummer) and character (Barrymore) inseparable.

After intermission, Plummer takes the stage in full Richard III regalia -- tights, hump, stringy black wig. The play turns decidedly more serious, and yet the end -- bittersweet though it is -- comes too soon (and not only because we're sorry to see Plummer go).

Playwright Luce is a veteran of one-man shows, having written them about Emily Dickinson, Lilliam Hellman and Enrico Caruso, among others. But "Barrymore" feels more like "an evening with" than a full-fledged play. Luce, Plummer and director Gene Saks have been working on the script since its September debut at Canada's Stratford Festival, but there's still more to be done to set up the actor's precipitous loss of heart in act two.

It's a moving ending, but we haven't come to know Barrymore well enough to give it the weight it deserves. Not that Plummer doesn't deliver it poignantly. Early in his career, Plummer was often compared to Barrymore. By now he has not only succeeded in living a longer and healthier life than Barrymore, but as this show proves, he remains at the height of his powers.

Still, you can't help thinking the sad end of his once-great predecessor -- or the threat any aging actor faces of exposing his diminished capacity in public -- lends an extra edge of empathy to a performance eminently worthy of Barrymore and of Plummer -- and of a more substantial script.

'Barrymore'

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; through March 2

Tickets: $25-$45

Call: (410) 752-1200

Pub Date: 2/20/97

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