For a limited time only, theater-goers have an opportunity to get two great actors for the price of one at Rep Stage. Yes, if you hurry, your ticket to "Barrymore" at Howard Community College amounts to a backstage pass to a rehearsal by the legendary John Barrymore — as well as a chance to watch Nigel Reed in what well could be the tour-de-force performance of the year.
Yes, "Barrymore" is a revelation on a number of counts. For starters, it's hard to believe this is the same William Luce play we saw back in 1997 in its pre-Broadway tryout at Baltimore's Mechanic Theatre.
The star then was movie actor Christopher Plummer, who chose to mine the play's poignancy and camp value for all they were worth. Here in Columbia, Nigel Reed goes deeper and wider to lay bare the battered soul of an artist caught in one long, self-destructive spiral.
May I take that line again? That paints an altogether too-dreary picture of the evening that guest director Steven Carpenter has prepared for us at Smith Theatre. It is also sophisticated, droll, a bit risque, and explosively witty.
Luce has cherry-picked Barrymore's memoirs for its finest bon mots and added a few of his own, making sure that whatever fragile human psyche the play reveals is packed safely in the bubble wrap of laughter.
On its surface, the play is written more like one of those solo actor showcases designed to acquaint us with great figures from the past. Luce himself wrote a number of them, including "The Belle of Amherst," one of the best in the genre.
"Barrymore" drills on richer dramatic fields than most. It is set in 1942, three months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and just a few weeks before John Barrymore would collapse and die of cirrhosis of the liver and bleeding ulcers at the age of 60.
Here we watch him arrive at a rented theater hall for a private rehearsal of a comeback performance in Shakespeare's "Richard III." A lighted marquee trumpets his name to one side in the well-observed stage setting provided by master scenic designer Terry Cobb.
Another change from the play we saw in Baltimore: Here he is given an active audience surrogate in the form of a timid stage manager named Frank.
Frank is well played by newcomer D. Grant Cloyd with just the right mix of innocence and impatience, exasperation and awe. He mostly sits just off stage and tries to keep Barrymore focused on the text at hand when all the actor wants to do is sip his liquor and sling witticisms about the errors of his ways.
How do you classify a tidbit like Barrymore's recollection of the advice he once received from his own falling-down-drunk father: "Staggering is a sign of strength, Jackie," he grandly quotes his Dad, then adds under his breath, "Only the weak have to be carried home."
Frank scolds him and pleads, but the memories won't be stilled. Something reminds Barrymore of the young director who first saw in him the quality of a great classical actor. We also see that young director's enthusiasm shining through Reed's multileveled interpretation.
Other things remind Barrymore of his four failed marriages, which he terms "bus wrecks," though it is Frank who must supply some of the forgotten names of the exes. The great actor reserves his most sardonic wit for the institution of marriage: "Divorces cost much more than weddings," he cackles, "because they are worth it."
In act two, the actor's inner cripple finds its physical expression in the deformed person of Richard III, a born king, doomed by his own weakness and vanities. It is here when Nigel Reed takes the character a full extra step into the darkness and acts out a chilling breakdown in which the costume comes off, the ego is exposed and we are cleansed via the ageless ritual of tragedy.
Reed has emerged as a first-rate stage actor in recent years. He gave us a wonderful evocation of writer Dalton Trumbo in Rep Stage's "Red, White and Blacklisted" a couple seasons back.
But we were taken by complete surprise by the fullness of his grasp of Barrymore, an icon from another age and culture with seemingly little left to do with us. Reed shows us we were wrong.
The Rep Stage Company production of "Barrymore" continues through Nov. 13 at the Smith Theatre in the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center, Howard Community College. Showtimes are Wednesdays-Thursdays, 7 p.m.; Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m.; and Sundays, 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $24-$33, depending on day and time, with discounts for students and others available. Wednesday performances offer "pay what you can" rates. For information and reservations, call 443-518-1500 or go to http://www.repstage.org.