One of the most difficult conditions to capture on stage is drunkenness. Most mistakes occur when the actor attempts to act tipsy. In fact, he should be trying to act sober, but failing, since most real-life souses think they successfully impersonate sobriety. It's this effort that makes being soused either comical or pathetic -- or a bit of both.
Properly depicting inebriation is just one of many things Mitchell Fields gets right in his re-imagining of actor-boozer John Barrymore in Barrymore, an essentially one-man show at Lakeland Community College Theatre. The task of embodying a larger-than-life eccentric such as Drew's granddaddy is a daunting one, and Fields almost brings it off. But even though the performance falls short of brilliance, it has many humorous and poignant moments.
John Barrymore was part of the preeminent family of American actors -- the brother of Lionel (Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life) and Oscar-winning Ethel. But John was the most attractive, magnetic, and talented of them all, morphing from a matinee idol in silent films to a Shakespearean actor of imposing proportions .
After that flurry of success, Barrymore slid into alcoholism and made a living by mocking himself in movies and in personal appearances. This play by William Luce takes place a few weeks before Barrymore's death at age 60, when he has rented a rehearsal stage in anticipation of doing Richard III again.
Accompanied by prompter Franklin (Andrew Narten), Barrymore is constantly pouring himself another bourbon and calling out "Line!" as he forgets every other word of Shakespeare's script. In between, he regales Franklin with reminiscences of his friends, his family, and his four disastrous marriages, which he calls "bus accidents."
Fields, an actor of consummate talent, tosses off many of Luce's funnier lines with bar-buddy conviviality ("Divorces cost more than marriages, but they're worth it"). Subtly weaving and staggering as the booze intake increases, he never overplays the lovable lush. And there are a couple times when Barrymore gets somber that Fields is able to touch on the sadness of a great man, now reduced to a jester, who "wants to be taken seriously one more time."
Still, there's something missing in this performance. The solidly built Fields more closely resembles Broderick Crawford, and one misses the trim and polished veneer that Barrymore possessed. Also, Fields is not an accomplished mimic, so when the play calls for Barrymore to impersonate other famed thespians, the results are mixed: Lionel and Ethel (mediocre), John Gilbert (amusing), W.C. Fields (awful).
Even so, thanks to well-paced direction by Martin Friedman and Fields' firm grasp of the subtler beats, this thin and anecdotal biography of Barrymore manages to do justice to a man who transfixed audiences for decades.