It's difficult to imagine anyone other than Christopher Plummer playing the title character in William Luce's Barrymore. In addition to maintaining his performer's lock on the role since the play premiered at Canada's prestigious Stratford Festival in 1996 (a few months later, the production moved to Broadway, where Plummer won the 1997 Tony for best actor), Plummer may be the only contemporary actor capable of crafting a thoroughly believable, eminently likable and quintessentially theatrical portrait of America's great classical actor John Barrymore.
And while most theatergoers will forever associate the charismatic Canadian with his cinematic turn as Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music, Plummer's mesmerizing portrayal in Luce's play, currently on stage at the Auditorium Theatre, is hardly what you'd call "movie-star Shakespeare." Possessed with a superbly supple voice and lithe body, the veteran actor is right at home telling an off-color joke one moment and reciting a Shakespearean speech the next, even as he punctuates such Barrymorish episodes by shuffling across the stage dangling two liquor bottles from his hands as if they were Lilliputian dancing partners and singing "I Got a Gal in Kalamazoo." Indeed, for the greater part of one and three-quarter hours, Plummer's brilliant tour de force does much to bolster his well-deserved reputation as one of North America's finest classical performers.
Expertly directed by Broadway veteran Gene Saks, the play takes place in 1942 at New York's Plymouth Theater, where the 59-year-old Barrymore (who in reality died that same year) is attempting to resurrect his once-glorious career by rehearsing for a production of Shakespeare's Richard III. Accompanied by his stage manager, Frank (John Plumpis), who maintains an offstage presence throughout Luce's drama, a pinstripe-suited, fedora-wearing Barrymore struggles for the first words of Richard's opening soliloquy while pausing every other line to engage in his renowned habits of tippling and storytelling. ("Have you ever noticed that Wagner had the decency to write his wedding march in the tempo of a dirge?" he quips in the middle of a reminiscence about one of his four marriages.)
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In Act Two, a costumed Barrymore, clad in red tights and wig as the hunchbacked Richard, lurches his way through a dress rehearsal for the Bard's historical saga. But that exercise is also interrupted as the aging star abruptly recalls the memory of his legendary portrayal of Hamlet with the words, "I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth." And in the hushed silence that accompanies those lines (as well as Plummer's artful, though truncated, recitation of "To be or not to be" that occurs in Act One), your mind's eye is briefly permitted to formulate its own romantic vision of a younger Barrymore at the pinnacle of his creative powers. Similar glimpses occur when Plummer performs selections from Lord Byron, Robert Browning and even Mr. Hardcastle's melancholy musing, "I love old friends, old wine, old ships," from Oliver Goldsmith's comedy She Stoops to Conquer.
As effective as such moments are (and Plummer delivers them all with consummate skill), their collective impact falls far short of conveying an effective portrait of Barrymore's greatness before his storied demise, which is needed to offset a contemporary audience's tendency to psychoanalyze a talented man's deliberate self-destruction. True, Plummer talks of Barrymore's boyhood wish to be a painter instead of going into the family theatrical trade (a wish to escape shared by his sister Ethel--hilariously lampooned by Plummer in the show's funniest moment--who wanted to be a pianist). And we're afforded a description of Barrymore's formative relationships with his grandmother and with playwright Ned Sheldon, who told the young lionheart, "You could be what the theater is searching for." But such wannabe talk is far less revealing of the has-been's early potential than is Plummer's actual blood-and-guts renderings of great Shakespearean speeches (which some opening-night spectators had difficulty hearing due to Plummer's wish to perform the show sans body microphone; adjustments have since been made to the cavernous Auditorium's sound system to enhance Plummer's occasionally nuanced musings).
Still, Barrymore's struggle to deal honestly with the forces that shaped his end is refreshing to witness in this era of belatedly repentant play-by-playboys and barely contrite, crack-smoking politicians. At the play's close, as Barrymore wails his regrets and laments, "I have indeed lost my command," Plummer nearly transcends the limitations of the playwright's material to offer us a portrait of a man who, though troubled and misguided, was nonetheless something of a hero in his own right.
Barrymore, through August 2 at the Auditorium Theatre, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 893-4100.