Quick! What actor is noted for his alcoholism, his arrogance, his habit of slugging other actors?
If you answered Nicol Williamson, you'd be only half right. He had a noble forebear in all these tendencies - the legendary John Barrymore.
And there is something courageous about the way Williamson incorporates his own notoriety into "Jack - A Night on the Town With John Barrymore," a one-person show he and Leslie Megahey have devised (and Megahey has directed).
"Jack" begins with Barrymore outraged that he has been fired from the 1937 "A Star Is Born." Hollywood disgrace gives him a poignant vantage point to look back on his Broadway triumphs, the greatest of which was the 1923 "Hamlet." Williamson recounts the fascinating story of how Barrymore consulted a remarkable woman named Margaret Carrington, a retired opera singer who helped him develop and lower his voice through rigorous physical and vocal exercises.
Williamson's re-creation of these exercises is the most entertaining part of the evening. It allows him to demonstrate his own physical agility as he runs around the theater, theoretically keeping up with Carrington on her horse.
The point of the exercises, of course, is to prepare him for "Hamlet." Oddly, when Williamson does speeches from "Hamlet" his voice seems high and nasal. What should be the high point of the evening is unaffecting.
Williamson's Hamlet a la Barrymore is more pleasing than his own interpretation of the role 27 years ago (one of the few occasions when I have walked out on a play - and at that time I was a paying customer), but it doesn't cap the evening the way it should.
Like most one-person shows, "Jack" eventually boils down to a collection of anecdotes, which Williamson tells with great charm and vivacity. He bounds across the stage with agility and abandon. His voice is strong enough to fill the Belasco without amplification, a pleasure in itself. But ultimately the evening seems more a showcase for Williamson than for Barrymore.
The reunion of John Barrymore and Nicol Williamson is, if nothing else, a press agent's dream.
It was only five years ago that Mr. Williamson played Broadway as the ghost of the stormy and unpredictable Barrymore, in Paul Rudnick's "I Hate Hamlet." That stormy and unpredictable performance included bizarre extemporaneous speeches, unscripted entrances and exits and, most notoriously, Mr. Williamson whacking a fellow actor for real during an onstage sword fight.
Instances of similar behavior abounded in Barrymore's own career, and never more so than in his last Broadway appearance, in a 1940 play called "My Dear Children," which turned into a wild, freewheeling exercise in self-mockery. The production was staged at the Belasco Theater, the very place where Mr. Williamson opened last night in "Jack: A Night on the Town," his one-man tribute to a seemingly kindred spirit.
The show arrives with its own historical baggage: When Mr. Williamson did it in London two years ago, he grabbed headlines by walking off the stage five minutes into a performance, announcing, "I've had enough."
Preshow publicity for "Jack" has accordingly buzzed with an unstated message: "Fasten your seat belts; it's going to be a bumpy night." Well, you can unfasten them right now. In a recent preview, Mr. Williamson was on best behavior: courteous, even, to a fault.
His John Barrymore comes across as an eccentric and salty-mouthed but generally pleasant dinner guest, obligingly ready to drop epigrams, famous names and tall tales from a legendary life. Alexander Woolcott observed early in Barrymore's career that this dazzling star had to learn to respect his audiences, a quality he never achieved. (That was one of the reasons people so relished his public self-destruction.)
The man now portraying Barrymore seems intent on staving off similar criticisms. And "Jack," created by Mr. Williamson with Leslie Megahey, the show's director, comes to feel about as danger-fraught as Hal Holbrook impersonating Mark Twain. The evening is pleasurable enough, but it is surprisingly lacking in electricity.
Mr. Williamson knows very well that much of his audience will be aware of his colorful reputation. He exorcises attendant expectations early in the show, when his Barrymore, discussing the press's eternal "open season" on him, declares, "I've never punched out an actor in my life."
He then hedges, saying there might have been one or two examples, including an instance in which the actor he accosted "couldn't take it and left the show" (as Mr. Williamson's own co-star, Evan Handler, did during "I Hate Hamlet"). The audience titters in recognition and relief. And Mr. Williamson is free to get down to the more serious business of being Barrymore.
He bears little physical resemblance to the actor he is playing. And for the most part, he avoids literal imitations of the Barrymore mannerisms one knows from the movies: the wild, roving gaze; the hyperkinetic eyebrows; the comic stiffening into affronted grandeur.
What we get instead is an unexpectedly easygoing portrait of a vulnerable, pleasure-loving and perpetually disappointed man who never really grew up. Indeed, this Barrymore seems less like a mad aristocrat of the theater than a hybrid of Peter Pan, Willie Loman and Archie Rice, the washed-up vaudevillian of John Osborne's "Entertainer."
Mr. Williamson can, of course, be a brilliant actor. There are some moments of heart-clutching pathos in "Jack," especially in its second act. And Mr. Williamson works hard in covering four decades of Barrymore's career, singing music-hall ditties and "Nessun Dorma," doing funny impersonations of Ethel Barrymore, John's sister, and Churchill.
There are many of the familiar, and perhaps apocryphal, stories of the fabled Barrymore wit. (A woman asks Barrymore if he thought Hamlet ever slept with Ophelia. "Only in the Chicago company," he answers.) There are recitations of letters and lengthy elocution exercises, with Mr. Williamson running through the audience to demonstrate breath control. And this actor, who once delivered his own iconoclastic "Hamlet," presents scenes from Barrymore's "Richard III" and "Hamlet" that give at least some sense of why those performances startled in their day.
But too often, the shifts between stories feel abrupt, as if one were leafing through a book called "Amusing Barrymore Anecdotes." The show mostly (and wisely) skirts reductive analysis. But it does make a labored case for Barrymore as a victim of the women in his life: the wives who began by adoring Barrymore and wound up "wanting to supplant me."
When Barrymore, seen behind a scrim in search of another whisky bottle, says to himself that his stepmother seduced him at 14 and wonders if that is why he has never trusted women since, it's a cause for groaning. And oddly, Mr. Williamson skips the more grotesque tales of drunken excesses. More often, his Barrymore registers a garden-variety alcoholic, bickering prosaically with his wives about his consumption of liquor.
There is something touching in all this, as if Mr. Williamson hoped to redeem Barrymore's monstrous reputation by showing the fragile everyman behind the myth. And certainly it is heartening to see this actor in such good shape on a New York stage again.
But there's a strangely relevant line in the show, in which Barrymore recalls an objection made by his vocal coach, the legendary Margaret Carrington, when he was first preparing for "Richard III." "I don't see royal," he remembers her saying. "I don't see quicksilver." Nor, for the most part, do we.
Boasting that he never assaulted a fellow actor in his life - except for that one little incident when he swatted a co-star with a sword - Nicol Williamson sprints (often literally) into "Jack - A Night on the Town With John Barrymore." The in-joke - theatergoers will be more familiar with Williamson's stage-fight-gone-awry than Barrymore's - isn't only accepted by the audience, it's practically demanded: Williamson's reputation precedes him, and the actor doesn't shy away from it or anything else during his energetic two-hours-plus onstage. That the actor out-shines the character in this one-man show says as much about Williamson's commanding theatrical control as it does about the serviceable but unexceptional play he's co-written with Leslie Megahey.
Bounding onto stage in a fury over being fired from "A Star Is Born," Williamson's Barrymore begins at the end of a legendary career and circles back to retrace the sad and exuberant steps that took the scion of America's grandest theatrical family from acclaim to near-obscurity.
Broken by drink, Hollywood and a string of failed marriages -- Barrymore calls his unions "bus accidents"-- the legendary Shakespearean actor, silent film idol and famous profile virtually invented the modern stereotype of the self-destructive movie star. He probably would have been terrific in "A Star is Born."
"Sometimes silence is the only noble response," Barrymore says as he quiets himself after ranting about his replacement in the movie. Unable to contain himself for more than a beat, he explodes: "Fredric fucking March?"
The line is a good one, Williamson's reading even better, in its virtual definition of the character: The imperial, haughty self-control always losing battle to the angry, insecure demons.
Just what made Barrymore so angry and insecure goes unexplained. Which came first, Hollywood? Alcohol? A lousy attitude toward women? Ego? The latter, probably, but "Jack" doesn't delve.
While the writers (Megahey also directed) deserve kudos for avoiding easy pop-psych Rosebuds, the approach limits the show's dramatic depth. Audiences aren't likely to learn more about Barrymore than they could from a Who's Who summary, even if they'll be more entertained by the presentation.
Bearing more than a passing resemblance in episodic structure and theatrical subject matter to Lynn Redgrave's "Shakespeare for My Father,""Jack" hits all the highs and lows of Barrymore's resume. This gives Williamson the chance to strut his stuff as he performs snippets of vaudeville buffoonery, "Richard III, ""Hamlet" and, finally, an alcohol-impaired Barrymore's futile attempts at remembering lines on a Hollywood soundstage.
The ultimate humiliation comes when the once-great (or near-great, at least) thespian is reduced to performing a cruel self-parody on a radio comedy program. Williamson mines the brief re-enactment for all the drunken self-pity it's worth.
Recalling happier times, Barrymore's love of acting, not to mention Williamson's re-creation of it, comes bursting through, most entertainingly in anecdotes about Barrymore's acting and voice lessons with the famed, fear-inducing coach Margaret Carrington. (As he does throughout the play, Williamson plays all the roles in the stories).
One exercise -- and a comic highlight of the play -- has Barrymore/Williamson in black tights running onstage, backstage and through the aisles as he huffs and puffs a word-perfect recitation from the Shakespeare canon.
The play also leads us through the failed battles with wives, studio moguls and, ultimately and fatally, booze.
Under Megahey's fast-paced direction, Williamson seems never to stop moving, barely pausing for breath as he ransacks the play for more humor and, less so, pathos than any other actor could find.
So naturally does he take to this role that his mind seems to race several seconds faster than his mouth, as if Barrymore were improvising an off-the-cuff tour through his life. At one point during the reviewed performance, Williamson tripped over a step, shouting an obscenity entirely in character with the bawdy Barrymore.
Near play's end, Williamson takes a sip from the ever-present whiskey bottle and, winking at the audience, slyly confides, "It's real." Maybe, maybe not, but even if the play offers nothing more than brown tea, Williamson leaves us wondering if he's drunk. And that's a compliment worthy of Barrymore.