SAN FRANCISCO — Christopher Plummer admits to having been a little uneasy when John Barrymore's widow came to see his portrayal of her late husband in William Luce's play "Barrymore." "I laid it on with a trowel in the beginning and then relaxed," Plummer says of his performance that evening.
But he needn't have worried. Elaine Barrymore came back a second time, shared with Plummer some private love letters from her husband "and said she closed her eyes and heard him. That was the nicest thing anyone could possibly say."
She was neither the first nor last to say nice things about Plummer's Broadway performance, a tour de force that won him a 1997 Tony Award. Now touring the country in a production of "Barrymore" that opens at the Ahmanson Theatre on Wednesday, Plummer could not have received better notices if he'd written them himself.
Reviewing "Barrymore" in New York magazine, hard-to-please critic John Simon referred to Canadian-born Plummer as "the greatest living actor in the English language." The Times' Laurie Winer called him "a great actor playing a great actor--the accumulated richness of theatrical history on stage is truly breathtaking."
Even offstage, the casually dressed, 68-year-old actor commands the lobby of a Nob Hill hotel much as he commands the Herbst Theatre stage here. Heads turn, and service people appear instantly. The voice that, critic Simon says, "in its chamois mode, can polish mirrors," sounds just as mellifluous simply ordering coffee.
"I've always had a dislike of playing actors, but Barrymore was such a rich character that he transcends being an actor," Plummer says. "He did hit the heights, and his last great role was himself. He never sustained that level of discipline or strength and technique to go on playing other parts. So he created his own Falstaff at the end of his life--a very rich and riddled character it was, too."
Barrymore was already a matinee idol when he performed both "Richard III" and "Hamlet" onstage, succeeding grandly in both. But victimized by his drinking and high life offstage, he was, at the end of his life, back in Hollywood reading lines off cue cards and parodying himself on Rudy Vallee's radio show and in films like 1940's "The Great Profile."
Given its inherent drama, Barrymore's life has been chronicled again and again in books and onstage, most recently in Nicol Williamson's solo vehicle "Jack: A Night on the Town With John Barrymore." All the ingredients for a play are there, remarks playwright Luce: John Barrymore "was vainglorious and eloquent, ridiculous and terribly intelligent."
Luce's device is to imagine Barrymore a month before his 1942 death, renting a theater to try to recapture the glory of his "Richard III." He has hired a prompter--the show's unseen second actor, played here by John Plumpis--to help him with lines he can't remember and deal with demons he remembers only too well. He's armed with a medicine bag full of booze and plenty of good stories.
This Barrymore drifts in and out of self-awareness and self-deception, travesty and despair. He puts himself down as "the clown prince" of American theater's royal family; for him, the family business is "a scavenger profession." His four wives were "bus accidents." His hands shake, his memory's gone and his health is shot.
It's a grueling performance. Onstage the entire time, Plummer sings, prances, jokes, rages, agonizes, recites Shakespeare, nibbles on a banana to cure whiskey breath. He impersonates W.C. Fields, Barrymore's brother Lionel and sister Ethel, gossip columnist Louella Parsons, even a French-speaking parrot.
New York producer Robert Whitehead, who saw an early draft of Luce's play, immediately sent it on to friend Plummer. "Chris has enough understanding of the disillusions of life and enough remembrance of the problems of boozing as well as the pleasures," says Whitehead, who has known Plummer for more than 40 years. "He has a poetic quality deep in his heart and soul, and he has just enough tough-mindedness and nostalgia to fill the character of John Barrymore."
Luce couldn't have been happier, he says. "I didn't write it for him consciously, but he was there in the back of my mind as the quintessential choice. . . . And Christopher is an actor far better trained and more gifted than even Barrymore, which enables him to plumb all the colors of Jack Barrymore."
Luce visited Plummer and his wife of 28 years, Elaine Taylor, at their country home in Connecticut. The two men watched Barrymore films on video, walked in the woods and brainstormed, says Luce, who sounds genuinely appreciative of Plummer's contributions.