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An Actor's Actor

Theater Review: Barrymore


Published April 27, 2005 at 4:00 a.m.

Known as the "Great Profile" for his dashing good looks, John Barrymore epitomized the original Hollywood bad boy. Fueled by a steady diet of alcohol, Barrymore worked his way through four colorful wives, grappled with a dysfunctional family, and stirred up scandal with his wit and naughty behavior. The latter ranged from bedding starlets to relieving himself in a potted palm beside a group of conservatives at a high-end restaurant.

Playwright William Luce -- who also penned The Belle of Amherst, about poet Emily Dickinson -- authored a one-man stage play that explores Barrymore's relatively short but vivid life. Christopher Plummer debuted the role on Broadway in 1996 and won a Tony, among other awards, for his performance.

In the current production, Russ Longtin, a theater professor at Johnson State College, excels as the irresistible womanizer in Barrymore. The play's premise is simple: A month before his death, the aging actor prepares to stage a comeback by playing Richard III. While working with a prompt, who remains offstage, Barrymore reminisces about his life. But his relationship with the past is complex; Luce's Barrymore isn't a sentimental old diva recounting his glory days, but a character not unlike Richard himself: He's struggling to find a niche in his famous family and grappling with a crumbling body that in its prime brought him money, fame and adoration.

The script balances Barrymore's wicked wit -- with references to, for example, the correlation between the size of his nose and that of his "hose" -- with his vulnerability. His more human side is particularly evident when he confronts his unpleasant family history, including violence at the hands of his father, and his overpowering need to drink.

Longtin is a seasoned professional with 35 years of experience. He easily commands the stage with his voice and physical presence from the moment he steps into the light in a stunning, double-breasted suit, a coat ostentatiously resting on his shoulders. For Longtin's Barrymore the stage is home, and over nearly two hours he develops an easy rapport with the audience. The actor captures Barrymore's inherent contradictions: He is insecure and bombastic; he is embarrassed by his age and still, in his mind, the young lover; he is clinging to dreams and yet gives himself over to regret. Longtin captures the imagination with his heartfelt embodiment of the character's multidimensionality.

Longtin has a particularly well-tuned voice and uses it to great effect throughout the performance. Whether delivering a literary verse or a dirty limerick, he emulates the great actors of the early 20th century. The rich texture of Longtin's vocal work delights the ear and communicates Barrymore's power to influence and seduce with his dulcet tones. In fact, the character's voice has its own history: Barrymore recounts learning "diction" in his stepmother's bed at age 14, and striving to imitate his Cambridge-educated father's pronunciation. Kudos to Longtin for meticulously developing a voice that reflects such emotional and technical complexity.

When digressing into Hamlet's monologues -- etched into Barrymore's long-term memory and more satisfying than Richard's elusive lines -- Longtin speaks the verse with passion and beauty. He takes full ownership of Shakespeare's poetry and, in doing so, communicates the fact that Barrymore was the most celebrated Shakespearean actor of his day. Longtin's delivery of Hamlet's famous speech about his loss of mirth is particularly poignant.

Longtin staged the play himself without a director. The production is mostly solid, the pace mostly superb through both acts. At times, though, Longtin rushes transitions, and he reveals the depths of Barrymore's vulnerability rather too early in the evening. A perceptive director might have polished these inconsistencies.

Barrymore's dialogue with the off-stage prompt, played by Jeff Maclay, also hampered the production, largely because the relationship between his character and Barrymore is underdeveloped. But this is also due to the challenge, created by the playwright, of remaining off-stage throughout the show. Additionally, Maclay's speech jolts the ears; while Longtin has perfected a period-style voice, Maclay's remains utterly modern. (Joe Hannon also plays the role; the two actors perform on alternate nights.)

Longtin is touring this production throughout the state, and his choice of the Hardwick Opera House was inspired. The venue has a beautiful painted curtain, six feet of which were left visible at the top of the proscenium arch. This was an excellent touch. Although the play has no special set per se, the Hardwick Opera House, built in 1860, was the perfect type of setting for Barrymore's comeback. But his declamation that he "rented this godforsaken dump for one night" to perform "Richard the Turd" may not get the same laughs when Longtin plays Burlington's contemporary FlynnSpace this week.

Overall, Barrymore is a satisfying evening of theater. In Hardwick, only a handful turned out to see Longtin's labor of love. A larger audience will surely further energize this excellent performance.