Screen and stage legend John “Jack” Barrymore comes to life in Interplayers Theatre’s production of the one-man show, “Barrymore,” by William Luce, directed by Mary Starkey.
When we meet Barrymore (Patrick Treadway), he has rented a room in which to memorize lines for Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” It is 1942. Barrymore, who calls himself the “The Clown Prince,” expects to play the title role. He is past his prime and trying to regain some of his former glory, but his work is interrupted by his need for alcohol, memories, self-doubt and the disembodied voice of a script prompter, Frank (Todd Kehne).
In one moment, Barrymore will speak Richard’s Shakespearean lines, and in the next recount his grandmother’s reassurances, only to quickly begin arguing with Frank. Treadway handles all these shifts skillfully, delineating each character and each moment well. His rendition of the frau, “Germanic Geranium,” who managed the rehab clinic where he was once a patient is funny. Act one builds to a crescendo as Barrymore becomes the maniacal king, in body and face.
Luce’s script features much humor, including fun wordplay and a few bawdy limericks. In New York City, getting hit by a cab is considered a natural death, Barrymore quips. The comedy is offset by poignant moments. When Barrymore reveals a dark event from his childhood, he slips into Hamlet: “Such an act / That blurs the grace and blush of modesty / Calls virtue hypocrite, takes off the rose / From the fair forehead of an innocent love / And sets a blister there.” In this context, the speech is both chilling and exposed.
Treadway’s delivery of Barrymore’s “I love old things” speech is particularly heartfelt, showing the character’s vulnerability.
While Luce’s script is an excellent character study, its lack of action can make it feel flat at times, and the ending is anticlimactic, failing to build to a satisfying peak the way it does at the end of the first act.
The set design by Scott Nicks is simple yet elegant, hearkening back to a golden age, featuring a backdrop with columned archways that have scrollwork and footlights surrounding the stage.
It all works together to remind us that inside every celebrity icon is a complex blend of dreams, demons, insecurities and incongruities, and that is very human.