Actor’s Nightmare, With Wisecracks: Barrymore at the Rep

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Actor’s Nightmare, With Wisecracks: Barrymore at the REP

Nigel Reed as John Barrymore

 Posted on October 31, 2011

With apologies to Christopher Durang, who nearly appropriated the phrase “actor’s nightmare” with his hilarious play of that name, “actor’s nightmare” is actually a phrase in wide use, at its root referring to the anxiety dream that comes at one time or another to almost anyone who’s ever trodden the boards: you’re supposed to go onstage but have no idea of your lines.  In real life, few actors would let themselves encounter this situation – which is why it’s only a trope in nightmares.  But it did happen to the legendary actor John Barrymore, who by the time of his death in 1942 at age 60 had lost his memory for lines, perhaps owing to his prodigious thirst for alcohol, perhaps secondary to the effects of Prohibition-era booze, much of which was dangerous, or perhaps from other causes.

The loss of this skill, critical for stage actors, became the peg on which dramatist William Luce hung his 1996 play Barrymore, now being revived at Columbia’s Rep Stage.  In Luce’s conceit, Barrymore (here portrayed by Nigel Reed) has rented out a Philadelphia theater for a single 1942 evening (evidently the eve of his death, or close to it) to attempt a revival of his career, and the play takes place during his long night of rehearsing with a prompter named Frank (D. Grant Cloyd).  But it is apparent that however brilliantly Barrymore can put across a line or two, he cannot do a whole speech.  He is given, I think, one coherent delivery, of the “to sleep, perchance to dream” soliloquy from Hamlet, primarily, no doubt, so that the audience does not doubt that Barrymore had once been great, but this is delivered in a manner that suggests it is a recollection of a performance, not a part of the rehearsal.

Clearly, stuck as he is in his actor’s nightmare, Barrymore is at the end of a career and a life.  So this show, sort of an opened-out one-man show about a celebrity (a genre unto itself) becomes a retrospective on the life and art of the man.  To all appearances, it had been a riotous life, full of wine, women and public acclaim, as well as ample contacts with other celebrities (including members of his own well-known acting clan).  So there’s a lot to work with.  Still, there’s a problem with the play.  Playwright Luce faced a dilemma and never resolved it.

On the one hand, Luce could have produced a sort of gossipy as-told-to biopic about Barrymore’s hijinks and those of his circle.  Or he could have told the story of an actor confronting mortality, which is an excellent on-ramp to exploring an important and universally-encountered experience.  But he tries to combine them, and this proves quite an unstable combination.  At least on the evidence of this play, Barrymore was not a very thoughtful or perceptive fellow.  True, the character is candid and impenitent about his alcoholism and his swordsmanship (of both the literal and the colloquial varieties), but all his self-awareness is smothered in wisecracks.  The closest he comes to acknowledging any downsides is in discussion of his four marriages, but this too devolves mainly into wisecracks.

Two gags from the show underline the relentless superficiality of this treatment.  Early on, Barrymore says men aren’t old until regrets take the place of dreams.  Later, though, he says that his great regret is he couldn’t sit in the audience “and watch me perform.”  If that’s his big regret, then deep down he’s shallow (in Irish Prime Minister Charles Haughey’s phrase).

And at the end, he makes his final exit with a joke about daiquiris which is not remotely appropriate to the occasion: the exit is clearly a metaphor for his demise, and the joke has nothing to do with it.   Of course there is no absolute requirement that depictions of the last gasp of a dying thespian actually come to grips with the sadness of life or death.  But this play has still chosen to flirt with the theme.  Many of the interactions with Frank the prompter stir the consciousness of mortality.  The fact that Frank has command of all the lines and Barrymore can recall almost none of them is itself a stark reminder of Barrymore’s losses, but it goes further: at times Barrymore muses that perhaps Frank is death or death’s emissary.  Indeed, it is possible to interpret this play as occurring entirely inside Barrymore’s mind, in which event the case for Frank’s role as memento mori would be all the stronger.

Yet that hypothesis is largely undercut by the playwright as well.  Death is a character in many dramatic productions (think of the chess-player in The Seventh Seal or the mysterious woman in Cocteau’s Orpheus) and one of the characteristics of such a character is the absence of the characteristics that stem from a human past.  Frank, on the other hand, we learn lives unfashionably outside Manhattan with his mother, is gay and draft-classified 4F because of it, which is way too much detail for a conventional Death figure.  Most of all, he evinces a fanboy’s determination that the show go on: he is frustrated almost to the point of leaving by Barrymore’s lack of  cooperation, by his lapses into raconteurism and his failure to commit to pulling it together so he can resurrect his career.  He wants Barrymore to live long and prosper, not to succumb to the blandishments of death.

No, it must be accepted that the play is something of a mess.  Which is not the same as to say that it does not go over well.  The audience certainly had a good time, laughing at all the potty-mouth humor (of which there is plenty), and lapping up the impressions Barrymore delivers of his brother Lionel Barrymore, of George Bernard Shaw, of Louella Parsons, and many more.

The big reason for the audience’s enjoyment, however, is the performance of Nigel Reed as Barrymore, who absolutely inhabits the legendary old ham’s persona, grandiose and gross and catty and orotund.  A strong physical resemblance to the man does not hurt either. D. Grant Cloyd does a fine job in the deceptively important role of Frank the Prompter, much of it spent dimly lit, sitting very still, but delivering dead-pan zingers from time to time that move the action along.

I think it’s fair to say that the Rep, under the direction of Steven Carpenter, has squeezed everything good that can be squeezed out of this play.  It’s just a shame there wasn’t a little more substance there to squeeze.

Barrymore, by William Luce, directed by Steven Carpenter.  Through November 13, at Rep Stage, Smith Theatre, Horowitz Center, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets $22-$33.  443-518-1500,  Adult language, description of sexual situations.

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