John Barrymore revisited by Sacramento Theatre Company
Actor John Barrymore was a handsome scion in an acting dynasty. At 24, he was on tour in San Francisco (playing a drunken telegrapher) when the 1906 earthquake struck. Since the disaster canceled performances, Barrymore spent his time drinking and concocting an (exaggerated) eyewitness account of the devastation, which he hoped to peddle. When the show departed for Australia a few days later, Barrymore wasn’t on the boat.
Barrymore shot to fame in the 1920s as a Shakespearean in New York and London. His noble profile also got him work in Hollywood. But drinking and carousing took a toll. By the time he was in his 50s, Barrymore could no longer remember his lines. He died in May 1942, just after he turned 60, a washed-up celebrity. That Barrymore is still remembered, 70 years on, is a testament to his talent and notoriety.
William Luce’s play presents the actor in his final days—charming, undisciplined, dissipated. He wants to remount Richard III and has rented a dingy theater to rehearse. It’s a portrait of brilliance gone to seed.
The Sacramento Theatre Company presents the show in the cozy 85-seat Pollock Stage, which is cluttered with old props. Veteran actor Gregory North (Barrymore) arrives with a leather satchel containing booze. He regales us with ribald limericks and tales of his divorces (“bus accidents”), periodically breaking into a Shakespearean soliloquy (not always from the right play).
Repeatedly, he calls on his long-suffering prompter (Sean Patrick Nill, offstage) to provide a line when memory fails. North’s piercing gaze, bright smile and regal bearing embody Barrymore’s gallant manner, alcoholic tremors and impulsiveness. North and director Greg Alexander keep this talky show interesting, with one or two minor lapses.
This production fares better than the 1998 Broadway tour’s ill-fated visit to the humongous Community Center Theater. That production starred Christopher Plummer—but Plummer wouldn’t wear a mic, rendering his sterling performance almost inaudible past row J. STC’s intimate Pollock Stage is a far more appropriate venue for this play.