A star burns itself out

Keith Baker channels the spirit of actor John Barrymore, evoking his misery. The stage itself reflects a life in decline.
Keith Baker channels the spirit of actor John Barrymore, evoking his misery. The stage itself reflects a life in decline.

Meet the intemperate actor John Barrymore, trembling and bitter, a month before dying.

Posted: October 15, 2011

In Bristol Riverside Theatre's production of William Luce's Barrymore, we meet Philly's own John Barrymore, "The Great Profile" - grandfather of Drew, sibling of Lionel and Ethel - a month before his death at 60. He staggers toward the final curtain of a career whose impact on stage and both silent and talking films (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Grand Hotel) was rivaled only by the self-destructive zeal with which he pursued women and alcohol.

Luce's conceit (Barrymore hopes to reprise his Richard III and rents a theater for the night to run lines before an audience) begs a certain amount of forgiveness; it's a flimsy premise, but ultimately worth suspending one's disbelief. Keith Baker might not have Barrymore's "Plantagenet nose," but he can channel the actor's spirit.

It's a plum role for Baker, who can swing between quippy, hammy, and overwrought and still get at the mortar in Barrymore's grand facade: his deep misery. Behind his struggles to get through a single iambic line hangs Brakenbury's observation in Richard III that the difference between princes and paupers is an "outward fame"; for both, an "inward toil" remains. Baker's command of Shakespeare's linguistic power offers a fine tribute to the legend at his best, and underscores the tragedy of his fall from grace, trembling, delusional, embittered.

A prompter named Frank (William Selby) serves mostly as stage prop and plot device, though steadfast and earnest. The set itself, designed by Roman Tatarowicz, echoes Barrymore's crumbling grandeur. Bristol's proscenium is replaced by a half-destroyed arch, its stage stripped to its inner workings. Curtains hang askew or fall off the walls, a piano is covered by a dropcloth. Clearly, no one's fooling anyone anymore.

Director Jon Marans lays it on thick - fine, considering his subject - and keeps Baker moving enough, both physically and emotionally, that we never feel we've been dragged into a biographical presentation, but rather that we're invited to watch as a star burns itself out for our entertainment. That says an awful lot about both us and Mr. Barrymore, and, as you may have noticed, things haven't gotten much better, celebrity-train-wreck-wise.

On YouTube, an old documentary clip shows someone pressing John Barrymore's thrusting profile into a slab of wet cement, preserving his image for posterity (or until memories fade, or the sidewalk needs to be replaced), despite the man inhabiting that too, too solid flesh, who's grimacing with humiliation and discomfort. Bristol's production lets us believe that at the very least, he went down fighting.


Barrymore

Through Oct. 30 at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe St., Bristol. Tickets: $30 to $45. Information: 215-785-0100 or www.BRTStage.org.


Follow Wendy Rosenfield on Twitter at #philastage. Read her reviews at www.philly.com/phillystage.

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