But this focus, unfortunately, is why Barrymore is not the best choice for this company. Because the John Barrymore in William Luce's play is a bit larger than life. Barrymore's personality is tempestuous. Luce has him flashing into red-hot anger in an instant, and then fading back into calm almost as quickly. At other times, Barrymore falls into deep sadness. These oversized outbursts are simply not plausible unless the character behind them is equally oversizeda charismatic star who can charm the room with his smiling eyes, and can flit from one state to the next with a fully committed passion, as his emotional dial is always cranked up to "11." And the more nuanced, human performance given by Gordon Goodman just doesn't fit this play.
Goodman is a good actor, and you can see the thought that went into his performance. The play takes place in 1942, as Barrymore attempts to reinvigorate his career with a production of Richard III. And Goodman does his best to create the aging actorhe has a broad amiable smile; his hands tremble from age and drink; he reminisces thoughtfully; and he reads Shakespeare in the grand stentorian voice people sometimes use when they are "acting Shakespeare." He even rolls the occasional "r" for perfect emphasis. It is a studied, nuanced performance.
The play, however, does not lend itself to nuance. For the bulk of the first act, whenever Barrymore quotes Shakespeare, it is loud, powerful and unemotional. But then, later, he has a quiet moment, doing a more realistic, "To be or not to be ... ." This genuine moment doesn't play well because the production has not prepared us for this kind of mood swing. For us to buy Barrymore's Hamlet, we have to be completely committed to the idea that a conversation with John Barrymore is a wild ridejust strap yourself in and be prepared for anything, even if that happens to include the most famous speech in the English language being played disarmingly straight, with barely any lead-in. But in this production, focussing, as it does, on Barrymore as just another flawed human being, the extreme changes in tone aren't convincing, leaving the audience as outside observers, rather than being drawn in.
I'd be remiss without a quick shout out to Matt Franta, in the thankless role of Barrymore's off-stage prompter, Frank. Franta doesn't have much to do; the job of Frank in this piece is to keep calling Barrymore's attention back to the task at hand (rehearsing Richard) when the actor wanders off into storytelling. But Franta does a nice job of keeping Frank genuine, and you can easily hear the affection Frank has for the actor he's trying to wrangle. It just underlines the point that Good People's focus on realism can easily pay off; it just needs a play better suited to the approach.
Barrymore runs at the Greenway Court Theater through December 1, 2013. For tickets and information, see www.GoodPeopleTheaterCo.org.
Good People Theater Company in association with Greenway Arts Alliance present Barrymore by William Luce. Set Design Scott Walewski; Costume Design Kathy Gillespie & Barbara Weisel; Lighting Design/Stage Manager Katherine Barrett; Assistant Stage Manager Rebecca Schroeder; Marketing Kimberly Fox; Directed by Janet Miller.
Photo by Kimberly Fox