Houston Actor John Stevens Brings Out the Demons and Genius
Barrymore on Broadway won the brilliant actor Christopher Plummer the 1997 Tony Award as Best Actor for portraying John Barrymore, the youngest son of an acting dynasty and probably the greatest Shakespearean actor of his generation. Barrymore's performances as Richard III and Hamlet were acclaimed and memorable.
Barrymore had classic aristocratic good looks, was labeled "The Great Profile" and was successful onstage in drawing-room comedies before turning his attention to Shakespeare. He followed his acting siblings Lionel and Ethel Barrymore to Hollywood, and he successfully made the transition from silent films to "talkies" when sound came in, appearing in 60 films in all.
But there was a demon lurking within. A love of alcohol and an accompanying inability to remember his lines ended his film career, and he was impoverished by his lifestyle and, after four marriages, alimony payments.
Barrymore was written by William Luce, who also wrote The Belle of Amherst, a one-person stage version of the life of Emily Dickinson that won Julie Harris the 1977 Tony Award as Best Actress. Luce's setting for Barrymore is a theater Barrymore has rented for a backer's audition the next day in an attempt to persuade investors to produce a revival of Richard III.
Houston actor John Stevens has taken on the daunting assignment of portraying Barrymore in what is essentially a one-person show, though there is a prompter, Frank (well-played by Scott Holmes), unseen but heard, and made very good use of, who interacts in important ways with Barrymore. Stevens has the advantage over Plummer in that Plummer was too old for the part — the play takes place in 1942, a month before Barrymore's death at the age of 60.
The production is bare-bones, normally not a problem, leaving it to the script and acting to excel, except that the bones here could use a little polishing — too bare can be a distraction. But it hardly matters, since Luce's script is composed of a series of one-liners, amusing and often with a dry wit, that are entertaining. And Stevens captures the self-awareness of a man who has seen his great gifts dwindle and is torn between regret and arrogance, between self-justification and bullying, between despair and a love of life.
Stevens has the magnetic stage presence to hold our attention and the intelligence to understand Barrymore, a man of genius to whom things came perhaps too easily, who was perhaps too quickly bored and whose love of women could be an all-consuming fire. Alcohol may have been a way of escaping from the dread of being bored — in Peggy Lee's phrase: "Is that all there is?"
Many of the great actors of a later generation had the same propensity for alcohol, including legendary topers such as Peter O'Toole, Richard Burton, Robert Shaw, the director Oliver Reed and perhaps even Plummer himself, who once told The New York Times that his own survival was based on always having dinner, and who expressed amazement that O'Toole was still alive (this was a year before O'Toole's death at 81), adding, "And isn't he a lovely shade of green?"
Stevens convinces us that Barrymore's love of women was genuine and true, and that beyond the lure of conquest lay the idealized playing field of romantic love, especially with his third wife, Dolores Costello — he has misremembered the name of his fourth wife. We hear an echo of Barrymore's greatness when Frank contradicts his claim that he was a good Richard, saying, "No, you were a great Richard." Orson Welles said Barrymore's Hamlet was the greatest he had ever seen and that Barrymore played Hamlet as a man of genius who just happened to be a prince.
Though it's not in the play, I find it impossible not to repeat the legend that Barrymore once performed Hamlet while so ill from drink that every time he left the stage, he threw up, that he was so drunk he could barely stand and had to deliver the "To be or not to be" soliloquy sitting down. Those who saw it said it was the greatest performance of his career. Talent will out.
The role is especially demanding in that Luce portrays Barrymore as a great mimic, and has him at various times imitate his acting brother and sister, as well as a variety of other characters, and Stevens does this to a fare-thee-well. It is a commanding performance, and one to be savored.
Bonnie Hewett directed, and has brought the script to exciting life. The pace is flawless, and she and Stevens, who recently starred together as Elyot and Amanda in Noël Coward's Private Lives, make a great team as director and actor.
I have a few quibbles about the set. Bare-bones or not, they should have painted over the Grauman's Chinese Theatre floor from the previous production. The vermouth for a Manhattan would be sweet, not dry, and it was Hedda Hopper who was famous for her hats, not Louella Parsons. And perhaps the throne chair should not too obviously be made of two-by-fours. God is in the details.
A minor weakness in Luce's script is that, while Barrymore forgets his lines, I couldn't believe that he wouldn't be able to remember the opening line of Richard III, "Now is the winter of our discontent," even after being fed "Now is the winter" by the prompter.
More important, Act II is too short, leaving us with a feeling that somehow we're missing an ingredient from this life, that Barrymore has kept hidden a secret we are not privileged to know. And I do feel that playwright Luce missed an opportunity for a striking contrast — it would have been great to see Barrymore in his prime, perhaps in a flashback or a dream sequence, when he was at the height of his powers. When a play is about "How the mighty have fallen," it helps to see the "mighty" phase.
This work is both demanding and challenging, and this production is highly successful, presenting a sharply etched portrait of a great personality, a tribute to the love of theater and a wry commentary on one of the many weaknesses to which a human being may succumb.
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