Drunkard watching is a dangerous sport. One is never quite sure whether to guffaw at the poor soul, or cry for help. Any audience attending Christopher Plummer’s brilliant star turn in Barrymore at the Music Box Theatre will have a similar reaction.
The piece itself, if the truth be known is uneven—but so is the subject. William Luce who has built a career writing one man confessionals (Belle of Amhearst, Lucifer’s Child) misses the mark here. Though he does give Christopher Plummer a chance to rip through a part he was born to play, Barrymore is really a piece looking for a purpose. It is only when the play is over that we realize there is no echo here, no lingering, insight or even a feeling that we can take with us. Where the play refuses to cling to the memory or the heart, the acting refuses to be forgotten. Due entirely to the masterful work of Mr. Plummer and the subtle direction of Gene Saks, Barrymore is an engaging, if confusing, piece of theater.
Barrymore of course is John Barrymore, the American actor who legitimized himself playing Shakespeare’s great roles in the 1920’s before becoming a parody of himself in Hollywood. The Jack we meet is the later Barrymore; a creature wasting away on the bitter memories of yesterday, floating in a haze of cheap booze and stale jokes. Through the ruin before us, Plummer allows glimmers of the actor’s greatness to emerge: sparks of genius that made Barrymore what he was; before the liquor, the four marriages, and the cheap artistic choices got the best of him
From the moment he saunters on warbling about his “girl from Kalamazoo-zoo-zoo” we are rapt. The play is set in an empty Broadway theater a month before Barrymore’s death. With plans of making a comeback playing Richard III he is running through the lines to see if he still has “it.” When forgetfulness and the libations overtake him, he lingers in reminiscence and wallows in his own regret.
There are plenty of admissions, here. Among them a little phrase taught to Jack as a child by his grandmother; “You can’t hurt me,” he says, “I have a special power.” As the play goes on we realize Barrymore has lost his “special power” or is unsure of what it was. Though there are plenty of little clues, we are never certain exactly what is eating at this man: Is it the failed marriages? The wasted talent? The sexual frustration? The play never gives us an answer.
What the play does show, if you care to spend the time thinking about it, is the penalty nature exacts when ego, vanity and hedonistic appetites are allowed free reign. Left unchecked, they can devour even the most talented, and more importantly wreck the artistic soul. When Barrymore finally snaps, he is a whimpering child pleading for help in a crumpled heap. And though we don’t fully realize what the poor fellow is going through, Plummer is obviously deeply affected, and surely that counts for something.
It is no mistake that Christopher Plummer won the 1996 Best Actor Tony Award for this performance. He not only looks the part (creating a frightening resemblance with only slight makeup), but he manages to create that rare sensation in the theater where the audience feels the actor is literally possessed by the character. When he enters in the second act dressed as the crookback, Richard, his read is astounding. He sounds exactly as Barrymore did when he played Richard III on radio (I know, I have the recordings around here somewhere). He handles the off-color jokes (which I won’t repeat) and the Shakespearean verse with equal gusto and power. There is no holding back or protecting the voice as is so common with actors of a certain age today. Plummer dangerously throws his voice about the room in a way that would demolish lesser instruments. He thunders, roars, bursts into song, wails like a child, and conjures up one devilish cackle. This alone is worth the price of admission and a testament to his craft.
“If Eve had offered Adam a damn daiquiri we might still be in paradise,” Barrymore says as he leaves the stage. For those willing to visit the Music Box, a glimpse of artistic paradise awaits; the daiquiri is not necessary, but it couldn’t hurt.