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Houston Actor John Stevens Shines in Barrymoore

The setup:

The Broadway production of Barrymore by William Luce won the brilliant actor Christopher Plummer the 1997 Tony Award as Best Actor, 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 on stage 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 to "talkies" from silent films, when sound came in, making 60 films in all.

But there was a demon lurking within. A love of alcohol accompanied by an inability to remember his lines ended his film career, and he was impoverished by his life style, and after four marriages, with alimony payments.

The execution:

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, as 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. 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." 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 Noel Coward's Private Lives, make a great team as director and actor.

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Act II is significantly too short, leaving us with a feeling that somehow we are missing an ingredient from this life, that Barrymore has kept hidden a secret we are not privileged to know. And playwright Luce has 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 have the mighty fallen" it helps to see the "mighty" phase.

The verdict:

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 may succumb.

Barrymore continues through July 5, Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest, information and ticketing at 713-661-9505 or at http://theatresouthwest.org/

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