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Behind the mask
The Gamm Theatre brings Barrymore to life
By William Luce. Directed by Fred Sullivan Jr. With Sam Babbitt and Mark McClure. At Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre through April 11.

Being Barrymore

If there was an off-Trinity production that inveterate local theatergoers were dying to see five years ago, it was King Lear. We have seen formidable work from Sam Babbitt, but this was the role that maturing as an actor and a person — he was then 70 — was all about. As anticipated, it was a powerful performance.

Now comes Barrymore, and it’s déjà vu all over again at Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre.

John Barrymore is Theater with a capital T, and once more here comes a role for which Babbitt seems tailor-made. The bio-play has been on his wish list since he saw it on Broadway in 1997. At Gamm he has been directed by Fred Sullivan, who has had the habit of popping up our eyebrows with his previous directing at the theater. (If you want to know what Burl Ives was reaching for in the film version of Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, too bad — that means you missed what Sullivan pulled out of Babbitt as Big Daddy in 2002, a definitive portrayal.)

Babbitt retired as senior development administrator at Brown University, and he has been acting in small theaters since 1977. Occasionally, a TV or radio commercial has kept his gravitas-soaked voice in professional practice.

Before an opening-week performance, Babbitt sat in front of the stage he would soon be swaying upon and talked about the role.

Q: You saw Christopher Plummer do Barrymore on Broadway. Did you spend half the time thinking up how you would have approached the role?

A: When I saw him, initially I just enjoyed him doing it. But somewhere in the process of that evening, I began to say to myself, "Ooh, I would like to do that!" and I certainly came away from it wanting very much to give it a shot.

Q: With all of the raves he was getting, didn’t the prospect intimidate the hell out of you?

A: Yes and no. The fact is that I think there’s more to the play — and I hope we’re demonstrating that — than he did. It was a vehicle for him. It was a good vehicle, but it was Christopher Plummer. It’s a showcase for any actor, because you’re it pretty much, not entirely. And in fact, one of the things that’s changed about our production is that the Prompter is a lot more prominent — he’s actually visible.

I think it’s safe to say that both Fred and I found it to be a much more interesting play than we’d thought it was — and we’d thought it was pretty interesting!

Q: Had Barrymore been especially meaningful to you before seeing the play?

A: Only in a kind of a funny way. I mean, I’ve watched a lot of his movies and enjoyed him. In fact, I can remember as a kid hearing him on Charlie McCarthy, on radio. But the inside joke about it is that whenever Fred has directed me, he’s always said: "Don’t give me that Barrymore stuff," you know. "Stop sounding like Barrymore." So that’s always been something between us that we’ve tried to eradicate as much as possible. That is to say, the ham sound and the portentous voice.

Q: So did Fred finally shut up about that objection in these rehearsals?

A: Well, yes and no — but mainly no. There are a lot of Shakespeare quotes, set pieces, some of which clearly call for a definitely hammy delivery. With others, you don’t want to do that, and that’s interesting. The reason you don’t want to do that is that they play into the development of the character on the stage.

Q: Was it difficult to separate how you think Barrymore would deliver, say, the "to be or not to be" soliloquy, from how you would do it?

A: Oh, yeah. Because listening to him now, he obviously had an extraordinary effect on his audiences, a brilliant effect. Listening to him now, after years of the Studio and Brando and everything else, he just sounds so over the top that it’s extraordinary. I mean, it can be thrilling, but it is something that you wouldn’t go near as an actor.

Q: There’s hamminess on one end of the spectrum, where it goes over the edge. But just short of that, it’s not all hammy — it’s inflated but powerful.

A: Yup. I remember seeing Maurice Evans doing Macbeth. I was absolutely thrilled. But my guess is that if I listened to a recording of that at this point, I’d be somewhat set back by the way he spoke.

Q: What about the play — or scene in the play — was hardest for you to make work?

A: I haven’t even counted up the number of characters he plays, but there must be — I don’t know — 10, a dozen, that are [snaps fingers] instant shifts of accent, which are marvelous fun but challenging, shall we say. So getting all those lined up was difficult.

Q: Also there are emotional shifts, which us civilians out here always imagine are enormously difficult.

A: The quick stuff, yeah. I guess the other part that daunted me, but turned out to be less daunting than I thought: if you read the script, he’s slightly bombed, his mind is not going in a straight direction, and so he’s all over the lot in terms of talking about this and talking about that. Sewing those together, so that a) they’ll stick in your mind about where I’m going next, and b) they’ll have some internal continuity, was hard.

— Bill Rodriguez

The suave John Barrymore set expectations for hard-drinking, womanizing, celebrity actors, as Dylan Thomas did for poets, Pablo Picasso did for artists, and Norman Mailer tried too hard to do for novelists. More usefully, they all held a magnifying glass up to life, and Barrymore had the more difficult task on stage of using himself physically for the lens.

In Barrymore, playwright William Luce creates a character who will settle for getting a laugh, having given up on getting much love. This person is closer to one of Shakespeare’s court jesters than to his tragic figures.

In the current Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre production, our most rewarding glimpses of the actor through Gamm veteran Sam Babbitt are when Barrymore’s mask slips and we see the damaged man beneath.

The evocative set, by Trinity Rep costume designer William Lane, places a fancy proscenium arch behind the thrust stage. With racks of costumes behind him, Barrymore is there to run through Richard III to refresh his memory, which in his best condition was always iffy.

His present state is quite definite, unfortunately. We are seeing him two months before his death in 1942, and his first action is to mix a martini. His opening words to us, his imaginary audience, are a dirty limerick. Lonely, at the end of his life, his only companionship there is a Prompter (Mark McClure). The helper is a fan who knows about Barrymore’s life — or at least the order of his four marriages — better than the actor does himself. The young man gets more and more exasperated trying to help, as the alcoholic fog deepens and the raconteur appears more interested in reminiscing about escapades and famous people than in getting his Shakespearean act together.

There is little difference between working on Broadway and in Hollywood, he says: "Sodom with subways or Gomorrah with palm trees." About his first wife, he remarks: "For 20 years, Catherine and I were ecstatically happy. Then we met." He notes that Wagner had the sense to write his wedding march as a dirge.

With Richard III, Barrymore is trying to revive his foundering career. It was this play that first got him noticed as a serious actor, we learn. As you know from fifth-generation Drew, the movie star, the Barrymores have been a theater family since the late 19th century. John’s siblings, older brother Lionel and sister Ethel, became household names in the movies, and their parents were English performers who came to the states in 1875. More than the family business, acting was "the family cul-de-sac," John quips. He and his brother wanted to be painters, and their sister dreamed of being a pianist.

Their father was a brute, Barrymore describes, who more than once forgot he’d brought the 10-year-old boy to a whorehouse and staggered home leaving him behind. Amidst the joking on other subjects, Barrymore gets dead serious when he tells of pursuing his father for 20 blocks in a murderous rage after he was violent to Ethel.

So after the abusive upbringing and failed marriages, it’s no surprise that Barrymore identifies with Richard III, the hunchbacked exemplar of maladaptive family relations. It’s here too that the play can soar. Not so much in the first act, when Barrymore struts and frets and hams up the snippets of speeches he half remembers. But in the second half, Babbitt gets a chance to slow down this manic egoist and let him recite the failed king’s lines for real. When Barrymore delivers the "what a piece of work is man, how noble of mind" speech, we see that hope has been all that has held up the poor sot all evening, if not all his life.

Playwright Luce seems more comfortable having Barrymore spin out wisecracks, if adding up the lines, both clownish and heartfelt, is any indication. He got the psychological balance better in The Belle of Amherst, about Emily Dickenson, and Lillian, about Lillian Hellman. Perhaps writing this as a vehicle for Christopher Plummer in 1997 skewed the portrayal toward the star-turn farcical.

Director Fred Sullivan Jr. wisely places the Prompter fully in view, as he wasn’t in the original production, to make this more about relationships. McClure deftly builds more caring into their squabbles as things proceed, and Babbitt milks that tension like a pro. The big payoff moments, however, are when Barrymore gets quietly reflective and he and King Richard merge frailties.

As the Gamm run continues and as audiences demonstrate that they appreciate more than the gag lines, perhaps more space will be allowed around those somber soliloquies. Then Barrymore the play can rise to the stature of Barrymore the flawed but earnest human being.


Issue Date: April 2 - 8, 2004
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