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Last Friday night, Theatre in the Park kicked off its 2002-2003 season with a tour de force performance by TIP executive director Ira David Wood III in Barrymore, a bittersweet backstage biographical drama about that grand and glorious ham's ham: stage and screen actor and one-time matinee idol John Barrymore a.k.a. "The Great Profile."
A legendary supernova of the Silent Screen and the Talkies, Jack Barrymore was also a brilliant Shakespearean actor on the legitimate stage until his fondness for alcohol, women and carousing in general, and the resulting physical and mental debilitation, snuffed out his candle in 1942. Barrymore's performances as the title character in Hamlet and Richard III inspired comparisons to the charismatic characterizations of the legendary 19th-century Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth.
Barrymore dramatizes the final sordid chapter of its subject's illustrious career. A few months after Pearl Harbor, and only a month or so before he died, Barrymore rented a New York theater and engaged a sympathetic prompter named Frank (Andrew T. Sync) to do a run through of Richard III. It was an unmitigated disaster. Barrymore arrived moderately drunk and ended the evening thoroughly pickled.
His special "gift" was gone forever, the victim of countless self-destructive binges of drinking and wenching. There would be no more comebacks, not as Richard III or any other character from the imagination of the immortal Bard of Avon. Barrymore was a broken-down old drunk on his last legs.
Although amply leavened with laughter, Barrymore is ultimately a sad spectacle of prodigious talent squandered, utterly squandered. The title character is still a charming bon vivant and peerless raconteur. But, more and more as the evening progresses, Barrymore staggers around the stage as he alternates between crude limericks and embarrassing anecdotes about himself and his family and acting colleagues, eventually disgusting Frank with his unprofessionalism.
This wall-eyed Jack delivers a few snippets of Shakespeare-mostly lines from Hamlet and Richard III-but his alcohol-fogged brain prevents his performance from ever being truly incandescent. And there are a few harrowing moments when Barrymore finally realizes, like the Orson Welles character in the movie Touch of Evil, that his future is all used up.
Barrymore is a meaty role, and David Wood dives in with his usual zest. Does he ham it up a bit too much? Maybe. But does Wood capture the alternately manic and morose moods of the rapidly fading genius of Barrymore at his nadir? Most definitely.
Andrew Sync provides a fine foil for Wood as Frank the prissy long-suffering prompter, 4-F because of his homosexuality and the butt of more than one crude Barrymore joke.
Wood, who doubles as director for Barrymore, smartly stages this poignant 1996 biographical drama by William Luce, who did such a fine job of bringing famous 19th-century American poet and legendary recluse Emily Dickinson so fully to life in The Belle of Amherst (1976).
Clever and resourceful scenery and lighting designer Stephen J. Larson and his equally talented wife, costume designer Shawn Stewart-Larson, dress the stage and the characters superbly for this unforgettable drama of Jack Barrymore's penultimate dark night of the soul. Don't miss it.
Theatre in the Park presents Barrymore Thursday-Saturday, Sept. 19-21 and 26-28, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Sept. 22 and 29, at 3 p.m. at Theatre in the Park, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh. $18 ($12 students, seniors and military personnel). 831-6058. http://theatreinthepark.com/2002-3season/barrymore/index.html.