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November 3, 2011

Nigel Reed triumphs as doomed actor in 'Barrymore' at Rep Stage

So he drank a little too much. And fooled around a little too much. And recited some wonderfully off-color stories or limericks a little too often. Oh yes, and forgot his lines a lot.

But John Barrymore sure was fun, as audiences can rediscover in a welcome production from Rep Stage that brings the storied actor to life for a couple of hours.

"Barrymore," a play by William Luce that became a notable vehicle for Christopher Plummer on Broadway in 1996, in this case provides a terrific showcase for a regional favorite, Nigel Reed. He enjoys quite a triumph.

The play effectively provides a biographical sketch within a plausible framework. The set-up is that Barrymore, starved for cash and a comeback ("I have enough money to last the rest of my life," he says, "provided I die right now"), arrives ...

at a theater to rehearse for "Richard III."

It's 1942, just a matter of weeks before the actor's death at the age of 60. He's aware that time is clicking loudly, but he's not about to let on.

The play is very well sourced; quips and antics have the ring and sting of truth. Barrymore's famous inability to remember lines provides particularly rich fodder.

(He was known on movie sets for keeping blackboards just off-camera with his dialogue written on them. When he told a friend that he wanted to play "Macbeth" in the Hollywood Bowl, Barrymore was asked: "How would you get blackboards big enough?" The reply: "I'd have airplanes skywriting.")

In the play, the legendary actor continually shouts "Line!" at a terribly patient prompter, each interruption leading to another fascinating riff on reminiscence or regret.

Reed seizes on these opportunities to flesh out the character. He even manages to look a little like the real thing, though it would take some serious makeup to approximate the deeply haggard appearance Barrymore had toward the end.

Reed flings bon mots with elan and expertly times punchlines of zingers so that you almost never see them coming, as when a description of 20 years of blissful marriage to one of his wives ends with: "Then we met." Or when -- marriage is a topic that recurs often -- he observes that "Wagner had the decency to give his 'Wedding March' the tempo of a dirge."

In Act 2, Barrymore is much the worse for wear, now pathetically attired in a Richard costume, but no closer to grasping the challenge before him. Something of a mad scene ensues, and Reed makes the most of it with acting of exceptional skill and sensitivity.

The role of the patient prompter, who tries as long as possible to help the legend regain his footing ("You're worse than a drunk, you're a coward, " he tells his idol), is not as thoroughly written -- no surprise. But D. Grant Cloyd gives it effective color.

Terry Cobb's set design is admirably evocative, as are the costumes from Denise Umland. Steven Carpenter directs the production with a sure, unobtrusive hand.

It is possible to pick a nit or two with the script. A passage about another iconic actor, John Gilbert, for example, repeats the dubious notion that Gilbert's voice was so absurdly high that his transition from silents to talkies proved laughable. It was the dialogue he was given that did him in, a fact that Barrymore presumably would have appreciated.

But such things prove insignificant given the overall authenticity and sympathy in this portrait of a doomed man and the noble profession that, at his best, he served so brilliantly.

"Barrymore" runs through Nov. 13.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:08 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Rep Stage

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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