High-Profile Vehicle

It's 1942, the final year of John Barrymore's life, and we've joined the once-great actor in a tiny playhouse, where he's come to recapture his former glory. Instead, he delivers a sodden recitation of his days as the clown prince of Broadway's Royal Family, recalling many of his famous friends and colleagues and his great romance with the bottle.

William Luce's Barrymore, which opens Ensemble Theatre's new season, takes place two months before the actor's death. By then, the eternally tipsy actor has been reduced to the fictional setting of New York's tiny Plymouth Theatre, which the Great Profile has rented for a single night's performance of Richard III, one of his greatest roles and a huge success for him in the early '20s. Two decades later, Barrymore is a sickly, sixtyish lush whose final attempt to revive his career never gets past this would-be rehearsal. He staggers onto his borrowed stage and becomes increasingly drunker as he bickers with an offstage "prompter," intermittently addressing a phantom audience with a rambling, high-spirited recollection of his actorly life.

It's all here, in no particular order: Barrymore recounts his early stage success, his glamorous career in silent films, his triumphant return to the stage as a notable Shakespearean actor. He drowned his talents and his life in an ocean of drink and debauchery, and here, he gleefully trumpets his alcoholism, his famous and famously dysfunctional family and the fall from grace that found him appearing in cheaply made Hollywood films in order to pay exorbitant alimonies to his four ex-wives. ("My troubles came not from chasing women," Barrymore once said, "but from catching them.")

Luce has made a career of profiling legends: His previous work includes portraits of Lillian Hellman, General Patton, Emily Dickinson and Zelda Fitzgerald. His superb script describes the darkness of Barrymore's late life in the actor's own slurred, self-mocking style, borrowing from interviews and biographies and occasionally placing quotes from other notables into Barrymore's mouth. The author understands that, while Barrymore's remarkable talent was destroyed by his boozing, he'd kept healthy his love of acting and his passion for life.

As entertaining as it is, Luce's play is far too superficial to be counted as a comprehensive Barrymore biography. The actor tells us about his messy life, but never ruminates on how he's come to this unpleasant place. His anecdotes are amusing but shallow and provide little insight into why the man chose booze and dames over art. Instead, Barrymore captures its subject's personality, and succeeds as a mirthful remembrance of a famous man.

There are other peculiarities in the script: It's unclear why Barrymore addresses both his audience and his offstage prompter; we're never told whether our presence is one of Barrymore's drunken delusions or if we're somehow present for his rehearsal. And Luce too often falls back on raunchy humor; where one dirty limerick or a single penis joke might have been enough, we're greeted with several of each.

That said, the play's only real flaw is Frank, the pointless "prompter" character who bickers with Barrymore from offstage -- a misguided device used to trigger the actor's memories and string together the program's disparate anecdotes. Frank is all the more annoying as realized by Matthew A. Fennig, a second-year ASU theater student whose emotionless delivery makes the character even more pointless.

Several of Barrymore's speeches shine, like the one in which he recalls his affection for playwright Ned Sheldon, who encouraged Barrymore to tackle Shakespeare. Or the recollections of his grandmother, who told him he had a special gift that would be remembered long after his death.

In the title role, Ken Love captures perfectly the desperation of an actor who can't make it through a single bit of dialogue without calling, "Line!" His rich baritone and wide gestures evoke the same brash brilliance and drunken, self-deprecating humor that marked Barrymore's late life. But to see the famous Jack Barrymore played by an African-American actor is unnerving and vaguely schizophrenic: We're either watching a black actor playing a famous white man, or a brilliant reading of a play about a disillusioned stage artist. Thanks to Love's emotionally riveting performance, Barrymore works as the latter. But the piece is intended as a biography of a man most of us can visualize. It's difficult to imagine Barrymore as Everyman, partly because of his unusual circumstances, but also because he's famous -- we arrive at the theater with an image of the man in our minds.

Love's superior performance is directed by the renowned Gus Edwards, best known for his television adaptation of James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain. Edwards allows Love to italicize Barrymore's stylized speech, and never restrains his grander gestures. He understands that a soused Barrymore, performing for his final (and presumably fictitious) audience, would have pulled out all the stops. The setting, too, is perfect: Ensemble's new space is still under construction, and its bare brick walls and half-built stage suggest a theater that reflects our hero's own ramshackle condition.

Ensemble Theatre is probably hoping post-PC decorum will prevent questions about Edwards' colorblind casting. Those able to forget John Barrymore's face will enjoy an invigorating performance that recalls the spirit of a legendary man, enacted by a man that Barrymore himself would have applauded.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela