by Lynn on January 31, 2011

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Elgin Theatre. Written by William Luce. Directed by Gene Saks. Designed by Santo Loquasto. Lighting by Natasha Katz. Starring Christopher Plummer

 John Barrymore was the youngest member of the illustrious American acting family, along with his older brother Lionel and his sister Ethel. John Barrymore was a hard drinking, much married/divorced womanizer, who also happened to be a celebrated actor, when he put his mind to it. More often than not, he didn’t put his mind to it. He squandered his talents with bad behaviour and booze.

Barrymore by William Luce, takes place one night in 1942, (a month before John Barrymore died to be exact), in which he is trying to get his acting chops back. He has rented a grand theatre to run lines with his prompter, Frank, for a future performance of Richard III. It’s a tough slog for Frank. Barrymore would rather reminisce about his life and loves, drink, tell jokes, drink, gossip, drink, and sometimes even quote the play, if he can remember his lines. Which more often than not, he can’t. Or he quotes from Hamlet, which is still off the point.

The play was first done in at the Stratford Festival in 1996, with Christopher Plummer as Barrymore. It went on to Broadway where Plummer won a Tony Award for Best Leading Actor in a Play. Fifteen years later Plummer is playing Barrymore again. As Barrymore, Christopher Plummer continues to dazzle and impress with his panache, verve, theatricality and ability to convey the largeness of Barrymore’s life. He is dashing and easily suggests that noble Barrymore profile; his grace; and his ability to fill a pair of tights. He handles the Shakespeare with style.

William Luce’s play, however, is another matter. Barrymore  is so slight as to be almost irrelevant. It helps to come with a knowledge of Barrymore and his family because the play only touches on their accomplishments. Luce spends most of the time having Barrymore lob one-liners about his former wives, other actors, his brother and sister, and anything else that might take his mind off the matter at hand—namely preparing for Richard III.  Luce has done precious little in his play to suggest why this Barrymore actually deserved a play. Not a good thing. After a while the lame jokes, the sexual innuendo about many women, and John Barrymore’s sloppiness as a person and has-been actor wears thin, no matter how good Plummer is.

And it’s a lame conceit to have a prompter who is never seen but often heard. As Frank, John Plumpis does a good job expressing the exasperation Frank feels when trying to coax a performance out of Barrymore who would rather ‘perform’ than act.

Director Gene Saks once again directs the play (as he did for the Stratford production). For all his comedic gifts as a director, they seem to be absent here. I found the pace on opening night to be sluggish. Or perhaps it’s the ‘weight’ of this slight play that just brings it all down. I make a note in my program: “Deadly.” Yup that about sums it up. 

 Barrymore plays at the Elgin Theatre until March 9, 2011;

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