I have to hand it to Bristol Riverside Theater: it’s easy to see a game plan in place, and it’s been a lot of fun to watch the theater’s growth over the last few seasons, with work that can both excite and educate while taking the occasional flat-footed risk — not something that’s easy to do in the current economy. It’s that notion of risk at BRT that continues to intrigue me. Even when I take in a show there that doesn’t quite hit its marks, it almost always has plenty of bright points and interesting elements to give me faith that the next one will go down a little smoother.
Will Luce’s “Barrymore,” presented as an intimate evening with the scion of the quintessential American theater family, definitely presents itself with all the trappings of such a risk. It’s a mostly one-man show (well, one and a half — we’ll get to that) that rises and falls on two precarious talents.
But first, the plot. It’s spring of 1942, a month before the famous actor’s death, and Barrymore — on the waning side of four marriages, a turn in the drunk tank, and scores of other embattled stories and moments — has rented out a Broadway theater for one night, to rehearse lines for what he hopes will be his great comeback: a return to Richard III, the Shakespearean role that put him on the map as a serious, classical actor with both depth and range. Across the play’s two hours (intermission inclusive), we’re treated to juicy anecdotes, fun bon mots, pithy one liners, and the occasional song. And more than a few moments of existential crumbling as the lonely, alcoholic former leading man faces his last days.
BRT’s artistic director, Keith Baker, tackles the role of Barrymore with transformative awe. He’s subtle, believable, earnest, and is clearly having a lot of fun. It is great to watch him disappear into the small, subtle moments (rare though they may be) in the play. Baker’s a world-class talent, and he gives due diligence to Barrymore.
The problem of this play, unfortunately, is on the premise of the Luce’s script. I love the verve of Barrymore and the moments where his inappropriate humor and roaring rage at his fading strength come out to play, but the big hurdle of this play is that it’s very hard to find an arc in this story and to see where and how these two hours affect Barrymore.
I had a professor in college who was fond of asking the “Passover Question” about plays — “Why is this night different from all other nights?” It’s hard to tell exactly why we find ourselves in a theater on this evening with Barrymore, as his ghosts and demons come to find him and he tries valiantly to stifle them with cheer and memories. I’m just not sure he’s gotten anywhere by the end of it, and neither have we. As a character sketch it’s sort of fascinating, and definitely serves a decent 101 course on the Barrymore legacy. As a story in which I wanted — and sometimes searched desperately — to find a place to sink my teeth into and follow the action, it comes up short.
This is sort of a shame, because there is amazing skill backing up this play. Roman Tatarowicz’s set design of a bare stage on an off-night covered in lush red curtains and standard dressing, is one of those rare scenescapes that gets a little gasp from the audience as they walk to their seats at the top of the show. And William Selby, in an underwritten role as Barrymore’s foil and line-reader, is wonderfully subtle and full of thorny charm. Jon Marans does a yeoman’s job with directing the threadbare action in the piece (and, it’s worth noting, his “Old Wicked Songs” last season was one of the top five productions of the last several years in the region), but at the end of the evening, I was left feeling that BRT invested wisely in almost all elements of this show — from the set, to the cast, to the direction. The hurdle that didn’t quite get cleared, however, remains the script itself.
Still, there is a lot about this production of “Barrymore” to enjoy, particularly Baker’s performance. And I applaud BRT on opening its season with a difficult piece like this. I look forward to return visits later this season and experiencing the rest of what it has to offer.
“Barrymore,” through Sunday, October 30, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, PA. $34 to $42. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.