December 15, 2018

The Great Profile in Caricature

John Barrymore’s career can be divided into four acts: a reigning matinee idol in the silent era, America’s most conspicuous classical actor in the 1920s, a somewhat medium-sized Hollywood star in the 1930s and, in the final days, a crapulous has-been whose main stock in trade was mocking the great artist he once had been. It is this final phase that playwright William Luce and star Christopher Plummer have taken as the basis of their one-and-a-half-man show “Barrymore,” now at the Ahmanson Theater. (I say one-and-a-half advisedly, as Barrymore’s foil throughout the evening is his devoted off-stage prompter, played winningly by John Plumpis).

This is the second Barrymore outing in three years. In March 1996, Nicol Williamson tried to compress the entire biography of the great actor into Leslie Megahy’s “Jack: A Night on the Town with John Barrymore.” It was presented to the audience as a slightly boozy confessional by an actor who, having just been canned, proceeded to narrate his life as if to a collection of captive barflies. Megahy’s script touched all the bases but never made it successfully back to the plate. The facts of Barrymore’s checkered life and career were consistently interesting, but they were like stray leaves torn out of a scrapbook rather than episodes in a progressive biography.

In Luce’s play, the details of Barrymore’s life are even less pertinent. The object here is to evoke the crumbling actor a month before his demise, when his self-effacing humor was at its richest and the man himself in the final throes of delirium tremens.

Plummer, ably abetted by Luce’s gag-riddled script, is thoroughly captivating in this stand-up comedy judiciously sprinkled with deflationary anecdotes and obscene limericks. Occasionally, he grips us with a pang of anguish or a painful reminder of a vanished glory, but, most of the time, he is amusing us with Barrymore’s self-denigration and inability to retain lines. Then, when we least expect it, he impales us with an excerpt from “Hamlet” or “Richard III,” and we are forcibly reminded that this “clown prince,” with the self-mocking laugh and weakness for booze, was once a marvel and the toast of two continents, and we are duly sobered.

The play never builds to any clear-cut resolution but merely dribbles to a close. No attempt is made to sum up Barrymore — either the quirks of his personality or the vicissitudes of his life and career. It is simply an evocation of a fading actor cocking his snook at the world and regaling us with his outlandish personality.

Williamson attempted a rounded portrait, but Plummer, who covers less territory, actually achieves more. He captures the reckless exuberance that inspired some of the actor’s more madcap escapades. (Irritated by obstreperous bronchial attacks from several members of his audience, Barrymore, during an intermission, once secreted a batch of sea bass into the theater and, when the coughing broke out again, flung the fish at the audience, crying: “Busy yourselves with that, you damned walruses!”) In Barrymore’s case, anecdotes that appear to be apocryphal are usually traced back to actual events.

In the earlier show, one tended to read Barrymore’s character through the prism of Williamson’s personality, but Plummer, in his bearing and vocal mannerisms, actually conjures up all the eccentricities of Mad Jack himself. It is an evening of superficial delights, which is perhaps why the show has been strewn with honors, including a Tony, a Drama Desk Award, and Outer Critics’ Circle Award.

Luce’s play doesn’t try to come to terms with the paradoxes and contradictions of the man who, in the 1920s, was arguably America’s finest classical actor, but concentrates rather on the ebullient and endearing aspects of his public persona. Given the choice of an in-depth portrait or an amusing caricature, American audiences usually opt for the latter.

Barrymore’s inconsistency was his most consistent trait. He could follow an astonishing performance, in which he appeared to be draped in the mantle of Edwin Booth, with some of the most grotesque histrionics ever perpetrated on a stage. As Luce makes clear, he, brother Lionel and sister Ethel simply inherited the family business — just as Booth and his brothers did from their barnstorming dad, Junius Brutus.

It was all flashes and filigree until Barrymore scored a success with “Richard III.” After that, and for a very brief period of time, he worked diligently to become the classical actor most American critics believed he already was. But an innate laziness compounded with drink and a weakness for hell-raising, wore him down and eventually out. The broken-down farceur who rolled his consonants and snorted superciliously on the Rudy Vallee radio show in the 1940s was a brilliant self-parody of the great actor Barrymore actually was for a decade or so, and could have been until his death if he hadn’t been abandoned by the very gods that once counted him as one of their own.

Charles Marowitz is theater critic for The Jewish Journal