Los Angeles Theater Review: BARRYMORE (Good People Theater Company)

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by Paul Birchall on November 14, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles

THE HAM IN WINTER

Here’s a show that means well, but which somehow falls a little short of expectations.  It’s actually somewhat difficult to put one’s finger on why:  By rights, the play should astound.  It’s written by William Luce, considered one of the great writers of solo biographical shows, whose works include the transcendent Belle of Amherst, and it boasts some delightfully witty dialogue.  And the subject is the early 20th century thespian John Barrymore, who lived bigger than even the characters he played.

Gordon Goodman as BARRYMORE - Good People Theatre CompanyThe work should hearken back to the era of boozing, brawling, larger-than-life luvvies, holding forth about a life that we can only dream about – a life more huge than the movies and stage combined.  And, yet, in some way difficult to define, director Janet Miller’s rather prosaic production somehow misses the mark.

Playwright William Luce’s biography about the life of John Barrymore, the great matinee idol of stage and cinema, is a solo show, set in the twilight of the Great Actor’s life, shortly before he takes the stage in a final, desperate attempt at a Comeback.  Barrymore, the once great performer, and crowning glory of a theatrical royal dynasty of which his granddaughter Drew is today probably the least and most debased, is a compellingly fascinating character – but Luce perhaps intentionally downplays the actual incidents in the protagonist’s life to focus more on the underlying universal theme of the inevitability of mortal decline and age.  What intentionally emerges is a portrait of an Alpha Male everyman gone to seed.

At rise, Barrymore (Gordon Goodman) arrives to rehearse for the one-man production of Richard III – a performance he has rented the theater for, and which he hopes will signal his grand readiness and return to the stage, much as the way Charlie Sheen four-walled theaters shortly after his disgrace to put on his own show.   Barrymore runs lines with a stagehand (Matt Franta, unseen in the wings Gordon Goodman in BARRYMORE - Good People Theatre Co.for the entire play), but discovers, due to a life of boozing and swiving, that he can barely remember a single scrap of iambic pentameter.

Instead, he regales the increasingly frustrated stagehand with shaggy dog anecdotes and memories of his career and the bad old days of partying.  Yes, there’s a bit of Wikipedia-like chronological top loading when he’s talking about his Hollywood days and his several marriages, but Luce’s purpose is to communicate the sense of Barrymore more than the reality of him:  The character is boastful, egocentric, and anarchic at turns, balanced by despair, self-indulgence, and insecurity.   “I have enough money to last me the rest of my life!” he opines, adding, “Providing I drop dead right now.”  Or, when he’s talking about a German nurse at a hospital he checked into for one of his unsuccessful rehab stints – “Up your Weiner schnitzel, you old sauerkraut!”

The problem is that, for a story like this, the play virtually requires an actor who is even larger than the text.  In the 1990s, this play came through Los Angeles with Christopher Plummer in the leading role – and it’s a shame to admit it, but this production misses that sense of star charisma and power which comes with the assumed fame of a real star in the part.  This is not to say that Goodman is not a fine actor.  His turn as Barrymore is assured and humorous.  As Barrymore, Goodman shambles around the stage, flaring up with tantrum-like rages, and downing martinis with the best of them.  But he never seems larger than life – there’s no spark of genius to his performance.  It’s a good, polished, workmanlike turn that effectively captures the decline of the man, without the genius Gordon Goodman in BARRYMORE - Good People Theatre Companythat came before.   Goodman’s Barrymore is very much a Ham in Winter, strutting and preening, half a ghost — but we never get the sense of his glamour.

Director Miller opts for a production that is intimate, with Goodman’s Barrymore shuffling around the stage, playing with this prop or sitting in this chair, like he’s chatting with an old friend.  Oddly enough, it is this intimacy that gives the work a disappointingly generic feel.  Goodman’s Barrymore just seems like any old actor – perhaps that’s Miller’s point – but even during a scene in which Goldman plays a scene from Hamlet at full, supposedly Barrymore-like throttle, the results are a trudge.  Luce’s play seems as though it’s meant to be about the inevitable decline into irrelevance and oblivion – but it’s also supposed to be about the greatness from which a genius falls, and this production never manages to capture the taste of that greatness.  It’s just a routine solo biography play and we want so much more.

photos by Kimberly Fox

Barrymore
Good People Theater Company
Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave.
scheduled to end on December 1, 2013
for tickets, call 323-655-7679 x 100 or visit www.GoodPeopleTheaterCo.org

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