Editorial Review

In ‘Barrymore,’ a thin premise and a thinner script

By Nelson Pressley
Thursday, Nov. 3, 2011

The man on the spot in "Barrymore" at Rep Stage isn't the legendary matinee idol John Barrymore. It's not even Nigel Reed, the actor who staggers and bellows as a boozed-up Barrymore trying to revive his stalled career.

Those performers ought to be the focus, but instead your attention gets nabbed by the author of this woozy bit of star worship, William Luce. "Barrymore" is criminally thin, a cynical knitting of rough biographical data, naughty anecdotes and, when it's time for empathy and a glimpse of wasted talent, lofty Shakespearean passages.

The excuse for the whole performance is breathtakingly flimsy. It's 1942, and Barrymore is about to die, but he has rented a theater to rehearse "Richard III" to revive his career.

Only he can't remember his lines. (There is a minor second character, a young prompter who naturally idolizes the has-been.) So the old entertainer slaps his hands together and tells us his life story, spouting smutty limericks and impersonating the floozies and celebrities he has known, such as gossip columnist Louella Parsons and his esteemed thespian siblings, Lionel and Ethel.

Reed tries hard - too hard - to make it all work. He figures to be up to the task; Reed and director Steven Carpenter had an intelligent success a few seasons ago with the similarly shaped "Trumbo: Red, White and Blacklisted," based on the letters of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo during the Red Scare years.

Trumbo, though, was a better writer than Luce. To be accurate, the Luce oeuvre has been successful, with "Barrymore" and the Emily Dickinson biography "The Belle of Amherst" both helping its Broadway stars, Christopher Plummer and Julie Harris, to win Tony Awards.

Or was it the other way around, with the genius performers making their genius historical characters seem radiant? The theater is perpetually littered with this opportunistic formula - fabulous actors (or singers, in many cases) playing celebrated figures from the past, making lazy scripts sound better than they are.

It's not a trick that Reed and Carpenter have up their sleeves. Reed rolls his r's and barks the bawdy punch lines, sounding plausibly Shakespearean while suggesting the imperious playboy that the stage and film star dwindled into. As of an early preview last week, Reed hadn't mastered the bad-boy charm of Barrymore lore, but the much bigger problem is the scattershot, sentimental script.

Hey, we're an audience. We are easily diverted, and we like stardust in our eyes. But as the young prompter pouts in disappointment as Reed's Barrymore huffs through another roaring story, what comes across isn't zest and nostalgia and melancholy, but flop sweat, the kind you can't really attribute to the star's late-life panic.

Reed looks to top career highlight in ‘Barrymore’

By Stephanie Merry

Friday, Oct 21, 2011

When local actor Nigel Reed took the stage three years ago to portray blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo ("Roman Holiday"), the results were dazzling for critics and performer alike.

"To date, I would actually have to say it was the best theatrical experience of my career," says Reed, a 38-year theater veteran. "That's saying something."

Can lightning strike twice? The elements appear in place as Rep Stage unveils "Barrymore," which once again brings together Reed and director Steven Carpenter for a nearly one-man show about the talented yet troubled actor John Barrymore.

Barrymore, who was the son of stage star Louisa Lane Drew and the brother of actress Ethel Barrymore, had talent coursing through his veins. He found success as a Shakespearean stage actor before moving on to films, including the 1920 version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." Yet a life of excess seemed to thwart his potential. The play takes place in the early 1940s, just before his death at age 60, during a fictional episode in which Barrymore is rehearsing a remount of one of his most acclaimed performances, the Broadway production of "Richard III." The result is a mix of tragedy and comedy and what Reed describes as "a journey of unrequited redemption."

Reed also played Oscar Wilde in "The Judas Kiss," for which he earned a Helen Hayes Award, but "Barrymore" seemed especially daunting.

"With people like Trumbo and Oscar Wilde, who are certainly historical figures and are known personas, there's no existing popular footage," Reed says. "Not so with John Barrymore. He's considered the greatest actor of his day by most, if not all, people."

Carpenter was less concerned with resemblance, especially since the actor has been dead for nearly 70 years.

"It's interesting because after the first read-through, one of the staff members said, 'You know, he even sort of looks like Barrymore,' " says Carpenter, who doesn't necessarily see the likeness. "But I think people get convinced of that because the performance is so dynamic and charismatic, and you get a sense of who this person was even if the physical resemblance is not totally there."

Although portraying Trumbo was Reed's most memorable job, embodying Barrymore's magnetic spirit represents a different kind of first.

"I can safely say this is the most physically demanding play I've done in my life," he says. "It's nonstop energy, from the moment he makes his first entrance . . . there are fast-paced moments to it, there are singing and dancing moments to it, some high-energy comedy, there's high-energy drama."

But the newness is laced with an old familiarity that dates back to Reed and Carpenter's first collaboration in 1999.

"There have been situations in this rehearsal process where I've just barely started to say something, and Nigel will finish my note for me," Carpenter says.

That easy relationship has given actor and director more time to tackle material that Carpenter deems more challenging than the "Trumbo" script. But more important, it creates an enjoyable workplace.

"Steve Carpenter is like my brother," Reed says. "There's a wonderful mutual respect between us that wipes away all the inconsequentials."