Barrymore! | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Kinetic Theatre Company

We who play, who entertain for a few years, what can we leave that will last?--Ethel Barrymore, quoted in Little Girl Lost, by Drew Barrymore with Todd Gold

Fuck the applause. Who's got a drink?--John Barrymore, quoted in Damned in Paradise, by John Kobler

I can't think of a better subject for a one-man show than John Barrymore. Brilliant, beautiful, flamboyant, haunted by personal demons of which alcoholism was only the most obvious, Barrymore led a life characterized by early success and premature dissipation. He enjoyed friendships with figures as colorful and diverse as W.C. Fields, Winston Churchill, Errol Flynn, Albert Einstein, and Krishnamurti; he suffered tortured relationships with his drunken, syphilitic, finally insane matinee-idol father and a drug- and sex-addicted daughter; he battled his way through a long series of tempestuous, sometimes ludicrous romances, marriages, and divorces. He was the first truly modern Shakespearean actor, using the controversial new insights of psychoanalysis to create the greatest Hamlet of his time and perhaps of our century; he was a sublime light comedian, a heart-fluttering leading man, a formidable character actor, and--finally, tragically--a weirdly willing accomplice in his own self-debasement as the star of a series of lowbrow entertainments designed to exploit his image as a befuddled has-been, a "sugar-cured . . . old half-baked Hamlet," as Rudy Vallee once called him in a radio skit.

To a contemporary audience aware of such depressing examples of celebrity self-destruction as John Belushi and Richard Burton, Barrymore's case seems at once familiar and confounding. Why did he throw it all away? Alcoholism was certainly part of it: he was diagnosed as "a chronic drunkard" by the age of 14. But there were other factors too. Seduced at age 15 by his own stepmother, he wrestled the rest of his life with oedipal guilt, sexual compulsiveness, and a deep mistrust of women. ("The way to fight a woman is with your hat," he once said. "Grab it and run.") The product of two families whose prominence in the theater stretches back to the 18th century (and extends today to 14-year-old movie star and recovering alcoholic Drew Barrymore, John's granddaughter), Barrymore found acting boring, if inevitable. A gorgeous man aptly nicknamed "the Great Profile," he took perverse pleasure in distorting his graceful face and form behind a series of grotesque roles; in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and as Sherlock Holmes disguising himself as the fiendish Professor Moriarty, he seemed intent on flaunting his own conflicted self-image as lover and monster. In his mid-30s, he made the transition from comedy to serious drama, modern and classic; yet after a scorching Richard III and a world-acclaimed Hamlet, he left the stage for more than a decade, returning only to parody himself in a tacky comedy about an old actor. Why?

A life as sexually and professionally messy as Barrymore's, which invites speculation but defies conclusive answers, is ripe for dramatization; and the solo-confessional format previously extended to such people as Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, and Tennessee Williams seems a perfect solution. For source material, there is a plethora of juicy quotes compiled in two biographies, as well as Barrymore's own poetry and, of course, excerpts from his plays and movies. Bawdy Hollywood anecdotes, painful reminiscences of family feuds, Hamlet's soliloquy and the "Queen Mab" speech from Romeo and Juliet--what more could an actor ask for?

That's how it seems to me, anyway, and that's apparently how it seemed to Leon Palles as well. A veteran of suburban community and professional theater, founder of his own Kinetic Theatre Company, Palles has created Barrymore! as a vehicle for himself under the direction of his wife, Linda Palles. But, all too Barrymore-like, Palles has squandered his opportunity.

Things look promising when the lights come up. The setting is Bella Vista, Barrymore's once-glamorous estate; the date is May 19, 1942, the day the 60-year-old Barrymore collapsed during a radio rehearsal from the debilitating effects of pneumonia and cirrhosis of the liver. (He died ten days later in a hospital.) Palles's Barrymore is getting ready to go to that rehearsal. Palles is the right age to play Barrymore in late middle age, and with his aristocratic nose and wicked grin he looks a good deal like the man he's playing. But almost from the moment Palles opens his mouth, things feel wrong. It's not his voice--that too fits passably into a physically believable impersonation of the actor famed for his lyrical but unpretentious speaking style. It's what he's saying that's wrong; Palles the playwright has wrecked any chances Palles the actor might have had of convincing us.

The main problem is Palles's extensive reliance on John Kobler's 1977 biography Damned in Paradise: The Life of John Barrymore. Though Kobler is unacknowledged in the program and press material for the play, some of Palles-Barrymore's descriptions of people and events sound startlingly similar to corresponding passages in Kobler's book--his stage debut with his father and his seduction by his stepmother, among other sections that I happened to read just before seeing the play. As a result, much of Palles's script rings false and hollow. His Barrymore talks about himself in the tone of a distanced observer, not the voice of a man who's experienced the losses and shames described here.

Added to this is a studiously chronological narrative structure that tends to obscure rather than highlight the emotional patterns in Barrymore's life. In a real person, especially a real drunk, memories fade into each other randomly, not with the coherence a biographer brings to bear on his subject. What's worse, considering that he starts out bemoaning his failed powers of memory, Palles's Barrymore goes on to offer quite detailed accounts of long-past events. If Palles is trying to make the observation that Barrymore's memory lapses were more hypochondriacal than real, it doesn't work; it just seems like dramatic inconsistency, especially when Barrymore starts quoting verbatim from old reviews.

Barrymore! is also seriously wanting in humor, especially in the first act. For all their underlying sadness, the stories of Barrymore's drunken antics and heated flare-ups with women are often hilarious to read, and the man himself had a mean talent for a cutting quip. But the figure portrayed by Palles is a genteel, rather polite tippler, not the macho, coarsely comic drunk suggested in Kobler's book and in Gene Fowler's memoir of his friendship with Barrymore, Good Night, Sweet Prince. Palles seems to have been so preoccupied with getting the information down that he lost sight of the man he was reading about.

The second act is better, especially at the end. There are some acidly funny bits: Barrymore mimicking his hammy brother Lionel, reenacting a drunken conversation with his ex-wife, and demonstrating how to read his lines off a blackboard while filming. Then, quite suddenly, there's a moment of intense delicacy and sorrow: the decrepit, dying old man quoting Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech quietly, fighting back a tear, as a confession of his own failure to survive "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." Palles puts a little spin on the word "outrageous" that brings a whole new meaning to the speech, summing up the bitter spectacle of a great talent brought low by inner torments and the ugly mockery of a shallow, stupid public.

Did Barrymore ever read the soliloquy that way? I don't know. But it's the one moment in Barrymore! when Palles brings his own point of view to the enigma of John Barrymore. Now cracks a noble heart, the moment says. It comes too late to save the show, but--like Barrymore's flawed but fascinating performances in a stream of less-than-great movies, the only legacy we have of the actor who defined contemporary classical acting--it gives a brief, wonderfully chilling glimpse of what might have been.

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