Christopher Plummer has two fabulous entrances in "Barrymore," William Luce's one-and-a-half-man play about the great actor.
As the first act begins, Plummer, his makeup perfectly recreating The Great Profile, swaggers on in a dazzling blue, double-breasted, pinstriped suit. It reeks of showbiz success, which Barrymore certainly achieved. He is not, however, strolling grandly down Broadway but dragging a rack of costumes, singing, "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo."
This Barrymore, with the smile of an aging but zestful vaudeville hoofer, has rented a theater for the night to prepare for a comeback. It is 1942, just before Barrymore died. (The entrance made me think Plummer could give Olivier's memory a run for its money in "The Entertainer," John Osborne's play about a washed-up music-hall performer.)
As the second act starts, the stage Santo Loquasto's comic-poetic evocation of backstage in the days before it was computerized is murkily lit. The shadow of Barrymore as the hunchback Richard III looms large against a curtain, and we hear Plummer clump ominously forward.
Wearing a maroon costume that perfectly parodies the grandiose style of the last century, he ascends a throne. The menace is undercut by the effort required to hoist himself in place, but the potent magic of the entrance makes us yearn to hear, "Now is the winter of our discontent . . . "
Instead, in his grandest voice, Plummer intones, "Winken, Blinken and Nod . . ." It is a perfect image for Barrymore's career, his plummet from the most acclaimed actor on either side of the Atlantic to an alcoholic capable of little but self-parody.
If only Luce's play sounded a few more notes! Barrymore jokes with us, spars with an offstage prompter (that's why it's a one-and-a-half-man play) and occasionally reminisces about better times, doing delicious imitations of his siblings Lionel and Ethel.
There are moments of wise self-assessment, as when he declares, "One of my greatest regrets will always be that I couldn't sit in an audience and watch me perform." He also shows rueful self-awareness when he observes, "Acting isn't an art it's a scavenger profession, a junk pile of all the arts."
You're grateful that Luce has not had Barrymore give a chronological account of his life, you sense that this crude fellow is close to what Barrymore must have been at the end, but you keep wishing Plummer, who captures every color of this Barrymore brilliantly, had a greater palette to work with.
There are, on the one hand, the jokes, which are artfully told, epigrammatic and often lewd. On the other hand (and it's the ruling hand), there are the pauses between and within the jokes, in which the teller's eyes go glassy with a soul-searing fear. He has seen something unspeakable, and words like failure, ruin and even death don't begin to describe it.
It's unlikely that you'll meet more charming or more disturbing company this season than that of John Barrymore, the long-dead, famously self-destructive actor who has returned for an evening's flirtation with the furies at the Music Box Theater.
William Luce's work is simply called ''Barrymore,'' and it isn't in itself too much of a play. But be grateful to Mr. Luce, a specialist in biographical dramas (including ''The Belle of Amherst''); he has provided Christopher Plummer with the chance to create a portrait of riveting complexity and paradox that defies easy psychology. Finding the illuminating spark of divinity in the junk heap of the aging Barrymore, Mr. Plummer spectacularly confirms his reputation as the finest classical actor of North America.
The standup breakdown has become a reigning form in the theater of dead celebrities in recent years. Whether the focus is Truman Capote or Maria Callas, it allows its subjects to spin off witty anecdotes about glamorous lives while occasionally erupting into tormented cries showing the crippled soul beneath the tinsel. It's like being seated next to a chatty trophy star at a dinner party with conveniently reduced potential for embarrassment.
''Barrymore'' is definitely part of this somewhat shameless tradition. And the actor in his waning years, a pathological specimen of self-parody, would seem to be an especially shameless subject. But under the assured, appropriately theatrical direction of Gene Saks, Mr. Plummer emerges as far more than the ''clown prince,'' as Barrymore here describes himself with sour disgust, of America's royal family of actors.
What he achieves instead is the sense of a man whose vertiginous highs and lows were born of the same knot of impulses: a toxic mix of arrogance, insecurity, raw terror, the attention span of a 2-year-old and an insatiable appetite for the pleasures of the flesh. Mr. Luce, to his credit, has not given Barrymore a moment of revelation in which he untangles these elements. And Mr. Plummer seems to live intimately with all of them at once.
In ''Barrymore,'' Mr. Luce imagines that the actor, one month before his death, has taken over a Broadway theater for an evening to run lines from ''Richard III,'' in anticipation of possibly recreating the role that provided him with his first Shakespearean triumph some 20 years earlier. Though aided by Frank (Michael Mastro), an unseen prompter with a Yonkers accent, the alcohol-pickled Barrymore can't remember much of the crookback's soliloquies.
Instead, he finds his mind roving randomly through memories of his anxious, unorthodox childhood, his roller-coaster love life (including four marriages he describes as ''bus accidents'') and his roller-coaster career, which went from the zenith of his 1922 ''Hamlet'' to the nadir of self-impersonation in Hollywood B movies.
Contrived? You bet. Mr. Luce's script has a lurching quality that isn't just a matter of its subject's alcoholic disjunctiveness. And even for a work about a man whose life was a long-running performance, the play is overstuffed with one-liners (''Things are beginning to click for me: my arms, my knees''), impersonations (of everyone from W. C. Fields to John's regal siblings, Ethel and Lionel, marvelously rendered) and the sort of stories that show up in books with titles like ''Amusing Theatrical Anecdotes.''
Yet Mr. Plummer and Mr. Saks have turned this fragmented material into something as fluid, stinging and warming as the cocktail (a Manhattan?) Barrymore mixes for himself onstage. And the evening (starting with the frayed lushness in autumnal colors of Santo Loquasto's backstage set) takes on an affecting shimmer of twilight, even as Mr. Plummer's Barrymore delights you with his own delight in his silly, ribald jokes (most of which are unprintable here).
It may be the production's chief accomplishment that it can have it both ways so successfully: it's both fiendishly entertaining and blisteringly sad. Watching this Barrymore, whether he's reciting from ''Hamlet'' (in a stagey period style that is nonetheless riveting) or singing ''Yes Sir! That's My Baby'' while costumed as Richard III, is like watching a brilliant drunk at a party.
You know that you shouldn't be enjoying his antics so much: that what he's doing, pathetically, is postponing the inevitable hour when the party's over and he has to go to bed with his demons. And for the drunk in this instance, to sleep means perchance to die. When Barrymore says that ''people are convinced that I carry around my own ashes,'' it's more than just gallows humor.
Unlike the British actor Nicol Williamson, who did his own, oddly lumpy take on Barrymore last season, Mr. Plummer bears a stunning physical resemblance here to the man he's playing. The performance is so skilled both as interpretation and impersonation (Mr. Plummer's glittering, restless eyes directly evoke the Barrymore of the movies) that it does something remarkable: it puts Barrymore's very style of acting, as least as we know it from film, in a richly personal and illuminating context.
This is achieved without a whiff of over-simplification on Mr. Plummer's part. Whether making a master vaudevillian's entrance, singing ''I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo,'' or turning into a little boy scared of the dark, this actor never forgets the unsure child beneath the ham nor the self-dramatizing ham in the frightened adult.
Mr. Plummer's Barrymore can find the balletic elegance in a drunken stagger, the poetry in a blue joke and the churning guts in rarefied verse. And as he walks toward his own death, it's with the jaunty panache of a boulevardier off to meet his new mistress.
John Barrymore set the Hollywood standard for a certain type of drunken rakishness, defining an image of the actor as charming, self-destructive rogue that continues to this day. Sadly (or not), that's about the sum total of Barrymore's legacy, his stage triumphs lost to the past and his film career remembered by few and cherished by fewer. William Luce's new play "Barrymore" doesn't add much to our understanding or knowledge of the legendary thespian, and whether it contributes to any affection will depend on one's tolerance for the charismatic lush type (a romantic notion best left to Barrymore's own bygone era). But the play, essentially a one-man show, does provide one of our own greats --- Christopher Plummer --- with a welcome and entertaining return to the New York stage. The performance and Luce's snappy one-liners make for a pleasant vehicle.
Luce's writing, never less than amusing and always efficient in sculpting a tale from biographical fact, was better applied to the richer character of Emily Dickinson in "The Belle of Amherst," the work that pretty much became the benchmark for the one-person bio-play. "Barrymore" falls closer to the playwright's "Lillian" (about Hellman): fine as far as it goes, even if it goes no farther than a basic common knowledge about its subject. (Play also has the disadvantage of hitting New York so soon after last year's similar one-man-show "Jack," starring Nicol Williamson and covering much the same ground).
Like "Lillian," which starred Zoe Caldwell, "Barrymore" has the great fortune of a fine actor. Plummer nails Barrymore's charm, a mix of aristocratic flourish and low-rent leanings (the character recites crude limericks with a vocal delivery more associated with Shakespeare). Indeed, so much of the play's humor relies on the shock of gutter talk regally intoned that the device begins to wear a bit thin.
"Barrymore" takes place just a month before the actor's death. His ability to remember Shakespeare's lines all but decimated by years of alcoholism, Barrymore, in natty double-breasted suit, is backstage at a theater (nicely rendered by Santo Loquasto) rehearsing a last-gasp attempt to recreate the stage role that brought him fame, the Bard's Richard III. Ostensibly there to run lines with a stage manager (Michael Mastro in a vocal, but off-stage, role), Barrymore instead turns to a more pleasant diversion: regaling us with tales about his colorful past (his long-term memory apparently unaffected by the drink).
Wonderfully told (and fluidly staged by director Gene Saks), the anecdotes provide snapshots of Barrymore's childhood, his siblings (Plummer does terrifically wicked takes on Lionel and Ethel), his rogue of a father, his beloved grandmother and all four of his marriages, or "bus accidents" as Barrymore calls them. Despite his professed love for his wives, the character subscribes to (and the play doesn't question) the drunkard's excuse of blaming women for his downfall.
His most affectionate memories are reserved for his long-ago best friend Ned, a young playwright who encouraged the actor to tackle the classics. The tenderness with which he recalls Ned would certainly lead audiences to question Barrymore's romantic leanings if the play didn't go to pains to insist on his heterosexuality.
The short second act ("Barrymore" runs at an hour and 40 minutes including a 20-minute intermission) focuses mostly on anecdotes from the actor's Hollywood period, with the comic tales heightened by the hunchbacked Richard III costume Plummer dons. Throughout both acts, the anecdotes are enlivened by Luce's funny one-liners and Plummer's expert delivery of them.
"Our honeymoon seems like only yesterday," the character says and, without missing a beat adds, "and you know what a lousy day yesterday was." More often, the jokes are risque: "What were you last in, Mr. Barrymore?" asks a fan. "I believe," the actor responds, "it was Joan Crawford."
As good as he is at the comedy, Plummer is equally adept at the pathos --- tragedy seems too lofty a description --- of the broken man. The audience will know long before the character admits that "Richard III" is a pipedream, that the actor's glory days are history. "Barrymore" is a congenial reminder of that past, and Plummer makes us care more than John Barrymore ever could.