Departed celebrities from decades past can make for
interesting theater, and good box office, too. In Sacramento, we've
seen notable shows about tragic figures like Vivien Leigh and Maria
Callas. Next week, there's a musical about Johnny Cash and
But perhaps the best role in this blast-from-the-past category
is John Barrymore, star of the 1920s and '30s. His meteoric career
flamed out when his constant drinking and wild partying destroyed
so many brain cells he could no longer remember his
This play opens with the dissipated Barrymore in 1942, trying
to prove that he's not washed up by attempting to remount "Richard
III," the Shakespearean role that made him famous 20 years
But Barrymore -- played here with gusto by veteran Gregory
North -- was notorious for going off-task, and soon he's talking
about his numerous ex-wives.
"Each marriage lasted seven years, like a skin rash. My
troubles don't come from chasing women, they come from catching
He also relates the family history associated with a dirty old
pair of tights he pulls off the costume rack.
"They originally belonged to Ethel. Lionel stole them, and
wore them for his Macbeth tights. When I got them, I wore them for
my Richard tights, and then my Hamlet tights. My dresser suggested
just once that they be laundered. 'Laundered, you irreverant lout?
Have you no sense of tradition? I opened in these tights, and by
God, I'll close in them.'"
Barrymore also pours drink after drink, and recites ribald
limericks that work well on stage but are inappropriate for radio.
But every once in a while, he actually does Shakespeare, and we
glimpse his former
"I can add colors to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it farther off, I'll pluck it down."
More often, his memory fails, and he calls pathetically to his
off-stage prompter for help.
Barrymore: "If you do fight in safeguard of your...
Prompter: "Your wives."
Barrymore: "Your wives, shall... what? What's the line,
Frank, 'Your wives shall' ... what?"
Prompter: "Your wives shall welcome... But that's not
Richard's line,sir ."
Barrymore: "Well, whose line is it?"
Barrymore: "I'll take it!"
This play offers a meandering portrait of the faded artist --
two hours with a charming but utterly dysfunctional leading man,
his career wasted. You clearly sense that he really did possess
greatness early on, but he's frittered almost everything
It's a cautionary tale . . .but you can't help feeling for
this beautiful loser, even knowing his failures.
Listen to Gregory North's appearance on Insight