Reviewing Albert Lewin’s cinematic adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1945, James Agee felt that Hurd Hatfield has been miscast in the title role. “[T]he only proper actor I can think of,” he wrote, “is John Barrymore in his early twenties.”
By then Barrymore had been dead nearly three years, and Agee — along with anyone else who had even a passing knowledge of stage and screen — knew it wasn’t just the late actor’s skill that would have made him ideal for the part. Barrymore’s hedonism was legendary. By age 15, he’d lost his virginity to his father’s paramour. At 16, he was expelled from prep school for visiting a brothel. Two years later, he was cavorting with a showgirl in ways that needed no sensationalizing when it came time to write the headlines.
Over the course of the next four decades, he was married and divorced four times, palled around with the likes of W.C. Fields and Errol Flynn, and brawled and womanized in the interstitial periods between acting and passing out.
Without a supernatural portrait to assume the abuse to which he subjected himself in body and mind, Barrymore was forced to live out his indignities. An unabashed alcoholic (his second wife once caught him trying to drink her perfume), he had his lines spoonfed to him via cue cards when he reached the point where he could no longer commit them to memory. He collapsed during a radio broadcast and soon died, aged 60, from cirrhosis of the liver and complications of pneumonia. Dorian Gray, eat your wretched heart out.
And yet Barrymore — brother of Ethel and Lionel, paternal grandfather of Drew — was an actor’s actor who metamorphosed with an effortless genius into characters like George Simon (in 1933’s Counsellor at Law) and, more famously, Richard III. While other actors struggled to make the leap from Broadway to Hollywood, or silent films to talkies, Barrymore glided between these worlds with a grace and assuredness that suggested he belonged there by birthright. Given his long acting pedigree, that might not have been wrong.
When the curtain rises on William Luce’s 1996 play, directed here by Mary Starkey, it isn’t John Barrymore in his early twenties we encounter, but rather a late-days Barrymore who wheels in a drinks cart, reciting saucy limericks. He’s supposed to be preparing for a last-ditch theatrical revival of Richard III. But his inability to remember his lines or plug the stream of anecdotes (or indeed the jug) — despite the best efforts of his disembodied prompter, Frank (Todd Kehne) — is working against him.
Patrick Treadway as Barrymore is a supporting actor playing a leading man. Intentionally or inherently, he presents us with someone less commanding than we might expect. Behind the dapper mustache a man without his character’s natural swagger is occasionally perceptible, creating a thin gap between the actor and his performance. That makes the sad, shallow arc of Barrymore all the more bittersweet. What good is a character who ruefully describes himself as a “counterfeit of a man” if there’s no sincerity in the line?
The real-life Barrymore said, “A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams,” a line Luce doesn’t let go to waste. In the brief second act, Treadway’s Barrymore is sometimes obscured by his Richard III costume; but on the whole his internalization of the material — the Lionel Barrymore and W.C. Fields impressions, and the particularly moving recollections of his doting Mum Mum — combat the play’s sense of running (or stumbling) in place to depict this once-great actor’s reluctant transition into the quiet despair of regret.
Barrymore • Through Mar. 15: Wed-Sat, 7:30 pm; Sun, 2 pm • $28 ($22 senior/military, $12 student) • Interplayers • 174 S. Howard St. • 455-7529 • interplayerstheatre.org