William Luce’s Barrymore, staged by Bristol Riverside Theatre, is simple enough. Set just months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, John Barrymore (Keith Baker) is a man in physical, mental and artistic decline. In a desperate attempt to rediscover his waning talent, he rents an old theater for one night to relive his greatest performance as Shakespeare’s Richard III. No longer capable of remembering the lines (a by-product of his excessive alcohol abuse), he hires a trusted prompter (William Selby) to lend support.
Dully directed by John Marans, Bristol’s production never succeeds in sustaining any momentum. Scenic designer Roman Tatarowicz’s tattered theater is an effectively majestic relic and Michael Troncone’s sound is lushly appealing, but Selby’s prompter is a dull companion for the distraught Barrymore.
As for Baker, he is a capable actor, but he lacks the charisma to make Barrymore a compelling presence and is only partly successful at suggesting the tortured soul that the once-great actor has become.
It’s too bad. Charming on stage and off, Barrymore was one of America’s first acting celebrities, as famous for his offstage behavior (including four failed marriages) as the talent that made him, at one point, America’s greatest Shakespearean actor. His life was as dramatic as the roles he played, but in Luce’s play he is a shadow of his former self. His ego remains intact—“one of my greatest regrets will always be that I couldn’t watch myself perform” he announces—but the bravado is forced. He’s lost his talent and only has himself to blame.
Though Baker has some good moments in BRT’s staging, they are too infrequent to make this Barrymore worth a visit.
Through Oct. 30. $32-$37. Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe St., Bristol. 215.785.0100. brtstage.org
Calendar: Sept. 2-9