William Luce's "Barrymore" at the Shakespeare Tavern, March 29, 2019 - April 07, 2019
Since the site is not allowing the posting of reviews in its normal place, the backlog of my reviews will be going to the forum
Title: The Great Pro
John Barrymore led a fascinating life as the youngest of the Barrymore siblings (Ethel, Lionel, and John). In William Luce’s "Barrymore," we’re fed a lot of stories about his life as he attempts to stage a comeback in "Richard III" in 1942, shortly before his death. We’re given mighty little Shakespeare, mostly lines fed from a prompter (Nicholas Faircloth). The bulk of the show is Barrymore (Jeff Watkins) going off on tangents as he swigs liquor.
To make the show truly work, we need to see Barrymore as a self-mocking showman. He starts off the show, after all, reciting dirty limericks and singing "I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo" (although the popular Glenn Miller recording was made just nine days before Barrymore’s death and didn’t hit number one on the Billboard charts until later in 1942). There needs to be a twinkle in Barrymore’s eye and a charm that outweighs his rants. Here, Mr. Watkins’ Barrymore seems more to show contempt for himself and for his audience. He’s generally unlikeable.
Director Andrew Houchins’ notes describe his introduction to the play through Christopher Plummer’s Tony-winning performance on Broadway. Mr. Plummer apparently pulled off the role with just the right balance of charm and arrogance. Mr. Watkins doesn’t seem to have the balance down. Blocking, however, is fine. Kathryn Lawson’s set dressing puts a liquor cart, wardrobe rack, trunk, record player, mirror, and various chairs and tables on the stage. In act one, they’re scattered about, with additional detritus-like pieces on the balcony, as if it’s an unused theater. In act two, things are straightened out, although it’s unclear if the set is for a movie or for an upcoming evening performance. Ms. Lawson’s lighting design highlights the action nicely.
For costuming, Anné Carole Butler has provided Barrymore with a 1940’s suit for act one and a typical Elizabethan tights-and-coat costume with long wig for act two. Nicholas Faircloth’s costume seems more Elizabethan than 1940’s. The show has visual appeal, with Mr. Watkins having a fair approximation of John Barrymore’s mature look.
William Luce’s "Barrymore" isn’t a long play (1.5 hours including intermission), so it doesn’t overstay its welcome. In the Shakespeare Tavern’s production, though, it’s not the spell-binding 90 minutes of entertainment it’s intended to be. We learn about Barrymore’s life, but we don’t learn to like him.