The elder Barrymore's story will be newly laid out for all to see come next Wednesday, Oct. 26, when the Rep Stage Company opens the biographical comic-drama "Barrymore." The show is a (mostly) one-person play written by William Luce to depict the actor's state of mind before his death at the ripe young age of 60 back in 1942.
Barrymore was considered a leading actor of his generation, part of a theatrical family dynasty that included Lionel and Ethel, as well. His career took a turn for the worse, though, when alcohol abuse and a tumultuous personal life caught up with him.
Luce's play imagines the actor rehearsing a revival of his 1920 Broadway triumph "Richard III" shortly before his death.
It's just the sort of set-up that makes for riveting live theater, says Michael Stebbins, Rep's producing artistic director who first saw the play on Broadway in 1997. It starred Christopher Plummer in the title role.
"Because talent came easy to him," says Stebbins of the self-abusive actor, "he didn't take it as seriously as the other members of his family did. He became alcohol-addled, and he was always looking for the next good time."
The play takes the form of a monologue, of sorts, with Barrymore going "in and out of reality" while rehearsing his role in "Richard III."
"He goes through his insecurity as a performer and tells of a period of his life where he took money from movie studios because they wanted to punch up his failed career. He also speaks of his relationship with his mother."
The work can't be strictly classified as a one-person show, however, because the character also interacts at times with a stage manager named Frank, whose voice is heard over a loudspeaker.
Second character or not, the play's myriad of words, ideas and moods still poses a formidable challenge for any actor willing to take on such a high-profile character. That's one reason Stebbins didn't stage it sooner.
"Over the last few years, a couple of directors and I talked about doing this show," he says. "But it was a matter of finding the right fit for actor and director. It's a piece you keep on your shelf until you find the right combination."
Stebbins finally chanced upon that combination with veteran Rep actor Nigel Reed and director Steven Carpenter. The two collaborated to much critical acclaim three seasons back on the political drama "Trumbo: Red, White and Blacklisted."
Reed is a former soap opera star who went on to win a Helen Hayes Award for his stage work. His blend of matinee idol looks and intensity as a performer convinced Stebbins that he had found the right man for the job.
"His first read-through was so good," Stebbins recalls, "that when it was over, I told him it was the most exciting first read of a play I'd ever heard because he was so invested in it."
That was especially important to Stebbins because the play demands a lot of an actor.
"The script isn't Shakespeare, so if you aren't invested in the ridiculousness of some of it and the extremes the character goes to, it could come across as a pretty crappy piece of theater," Stebbins admits. "But Nigel came to the first reading basically 'off book' and ready to work."
Stebbins says he thinks Reed "has really matured as an actor over the years.
"He has much more of an emotional depth and availability, and on stage he's very personable. I thought he could definitely embody the greatness of John Barrymore."
The Rep Stage Company will stage "Barrymore" Oct. 26-Nov. 13, in Howard Community College's Smith Theatre, located in the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center. Showtimes are Wednesdays-Thursdays, 7 p.m.; Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m.; and Sundays, 6:30 p.m. Tickets run $22 to $30, depending on the performance day. Pay-what-you-can performances will be offered Wednesdays. Admission is $12 for all students with ID. Call 410-772-4900 or go to http://www.repstage.org.
Poe in the salon
Rep Stage has expanded its theater season with a smaller, non-subscription series featuring full-scale productions like "Barrymore." This new "Salon Series" will feature mostly one-person shows.
Next up in the series is a play called "The Poe Show," which opens Friday, Oct. 21. The production will feature Baltimore actor and director Tony Tsendeas reading works written by poet and author Edgar Allan Poe. Tsendeas is a nationally recognized interpreter of Poe's writings and performed a similar reading last year at Halloween — a time when Poe's macabre works are at their most popular.
The Salon Series, says Michael Stebbins, allows the company to stretch artistically without having to deal with budgetary and production constraints that come with staging a full production.
"I think we're offering more variety by having the Salon Series," Stebbins says. "That's part of our goal — to continue throughout the season to offer a variety of options and keep our name out there."
"The Poe Show" can be seen Friday-Monday, Oct. 21-24, in the Studio Theatre. Showtimes are Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m.; and Monday, 7 p.m. Tickets run $15, and no discounts apply. Call 410-772-4900 or go to http://www.repstage.org.