Nigel Reed oozes charisma and charm as the boozing, talented John Barrymore in a multi-faceted portrayal of the past-his-prime but still in-your-face actor, struggling to retain footing in an evolving theatrical world.
Reed taps into the character’s survival instincts with a perfectly pitched delivery, assisted nicely by D. Grant Cloyd as Frank, his ever-ready prompter-assistant, who tries to goad and wheedle the once dynamic actor back to a prime time performance. Along the way, we catch glimpses of the iconic Barrymore, struggling to keep his demons at bay, but still holding onto the actor’s creed of “the show going on.” Reed hits the boards with energetic zeal while tossing out zingers like witty Molotov cocktails.
Director Steven Carpenter and Reed share an easy rapport as they find, define and articulate the moments of discovery for this dynamic character, who talks comfortably to the audience like we’re nestled on his living room sofa, drink in hand, of course, at an after dinner soiree.
Because for Barrymore, an audience is never far away, at least in his own mind. Ah, if only he could bask in the wonderful experience of watching his own glorious self on stage! Yes, that’s in the script, one of many explosively funny bits sprinkled through the text like fun-filled nuggets that Barrymore tosses off with hilarious results.
It’s fair to say that no one hits a boozey delivery like Reed, and with a quality script in hand, he is armed and dangerously funny.
Determined to make a final comeback, Barrymore resorts to his famous role as King Richard III to prove that he’s still got what it takes. He enters the sparsely lit stage ready to run his lines, if only he would settle down and get to work. Instead, his fuzzy ramblings and missed cues bring up moments of his childhood, including his tense relationship with his accomplished older brother Lionel, super organized and feisty sister Ethel, and the formidable patriarch actor, hard drinking father, Herbert Arthur who ruled the motherless roost in a hazy widowed fog.
Known as the perenniel cut up, and ne’er do well, especially by his father, John or Jack Barrymore has a rudderless approach to life, instantly gratified with the possibility that reclaimed fame and acclaim are just the next role away. He has what it takes and can even almost feel the powerful hereditary juices coursing through him as product of the Barrymore and Drew acting dynasty. His kingdom for a horse indeed, or at least a decently delivered line.
Through all the family sagas, the relived theatrical routines, the fear of failure, even simultaneous bouts of elated and deflated self esteem, the play’s the thing, and Barrymore’s reverence for the text is so strong it’s almost palpable. Reed delivers his soliloquies in a passionate and caring manner, his disposition balanced precariously on a razor thin blade between hope and despair.
The well-crafted script gets the turmoil just right while Carpenter’s direction releases the engaging and funny side of the character. At one moment Barrymore is the life of the party even doing an old soft shoe shuffling dance routine between takes. In contrast, he opens the second Act in full Elizabethan regalia, tights, crown and all, carefully takes center stage on a sumptuously dressed throne. He is the center of attention and has the crowd in the palm of his hand and he knows it. And Reed knows what to do with it. He grabs the moment in a ‘seize the day’ kind of fit that ends up dazzlingly funny.
Barrymore’s mega-watted name in lights on the side of the stage (scenic design by Terry Cobb) serves as a perfect metaphor for this larger than life character. Sound design by Neil McFadden offers old time hits with a jazzy flair, a nice stylistic reflection of Barrymore himself, dapper and gallant as they come, as all four of his wives would attest. Despite all of his put downs of detested ex-wives and wretched alimony payments, he softly confesses that he’d go through it all again in a heartbeat for a glimmer of true love and happiness. What a heart, what a man, and what a terrific show.
Barrymore runs thru Nov 13, 2011 at the Horowitz Center, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, MD.
Written by William Luce
Directed by Steven Carpenter
Produced by Rep Stage
Reviewed by Debbie M. Jackson