The subject is John Barrymore and Christopher Plummer.
Here's the quiz. Which actor has or had:
Major success in the title roles of "Richard III" and "Hamlet"?
A personal life earmarked by alcohol and multiple marriages?
A film career considered less distinguished than his stage work?
A daughter who followed in her father's career footsteps?
If you answered "both" to each question, you will appreciate the coup of casting Plummer in the new William Luce play, "Barrymore," which begins a pre-Broadway run at the Mechanic Theatre Tuesday.
"The corollaries are there," admits Luce. "Christopher was the one we really wanted."
Nor does Plummer deny the comparisons, which, in terms of talent, were also pointed out by critics early in his career, particularly in reference to his performances of "Hamlet" in the early 1960s.
"[The comparisons] happened when I was so young," Plummer says graciously. "I don't think that they continued very much after I was in my late 30s. I was flattered by them. Most of them were because I had a slight physical resemblance to him and moved with the same speed, and I'm an athlete. I didn't think of Barrymore much at all after a while.
But then he adds, "I suppose subconsciously he's always there."
Lately, of course, Barrymore has also been there consciously, as Plummer has been honing Luce's nearly one-man show -- there's also an off-stage character of a prompter -- on the road.
Though Plummer never saw Barrymore in person -- "I was much too young to see him on stage. I was 12 when he died," the 67-year-old actor quickly explains -- he gained an early appreciation through Gene Fowler's 1943 biography, "Good Night, Sweet Prince," which Plummer read as a teen-ager.
"It certainly ignited those desires to be an actor, and I think it did a lot for my whole generation of actors," he says. "It was a book about a wonderful personality who was colorful and glamorous and also extraordinarily gifted, and was able to live the life of Riley at the same time -- being outrageously naughty and doing all the rebellious things that are attractive to the young. It inspired us to [emulate] a devil-may-care roguish character who could always get away with being marvelous if he wanted to."
Although Plummer has given up hard liquor in favor of wine, he acknowledges that there was a time when he and a group of his peers -- such as Richard Burton, Jason Robards and Peter O'Toole -- took Barrymore's devil-may-care credo to heart.
"That whole group, when it was fashionable to drink -- in the '50s, the first part of the '60s -- it was kind of like a fraternity. You had to pass a certain test. If you could get drunk and come the next day with a hangover but still get through the day marvelously, then you were a man, my son. The same thing happened in [Barrymore's] time. There was a sort of derring-do about it. Let's see how far we can go into disaster and then pull it off. We all tried to get too near the flame."
In fine fettle
That Plummer tempered his derring-do -- not only by toning down the alcohol but also by remaining married to his third wife for 26 years now -- may help explain why he's in fine enough fettle to take on the challenge of portraying a broken man.
And yet, reading Fowler's vintage biography, you can't help but notice the similarities. Both Barrymore and Plummer, for example, originally intended to pursue another branch of the arts; Barrymore wanted to be a visual artist and Plummer a pianist. Both also shared a penchant for redecorating and surrounding themselves with beautiful things. For Plummer and his wife, Elaine Taylor, this has taken the form of renovating old houses, living in them for a while and then selling them, a practice he says "the market doesn't allow" anymore.
Then there are the ways Barrymore and Plummer have reacted to difficulties with the audience. Barrymore, for instance, responded instantly and without mercy to coughers -- chiding them from the stage, recommending a cure or even taking part in the coughing himself.
Fowler also reports that once during "Richard III," when a theatergoer in the balcony laughed after the line, "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" Barrymore replied -- in appropriate iambic pentameter -- "Make haste, and saddle yonder braying ass!"
Plummer adds a Barrymore story of his own to this catalog -- an anecdote about the legendary actor picking up a fish from the prop table and tossing it at some coughers with the rebuke: "Chew on that, you walruses, while I finish the libretto."
Swordplay in the audience
Plummer's own contretemps with audiences began relatively early, when he was appearing in a Stratford Festival production of "King John" in his native Ontario, Canada. Distracted by a patron in the front row who was following along in the script, Plummer used his sword to knock the book to the floor, only to discover after the embarrassed patron fled that he was a recently released prisoner who was a devout Shakespeare fan, despite being unschooled in theater etiquette.
A potentially more dangerous mishap with a sword occurred here at the Mechanic in 1981 when Plummer was playing Iago opposite James Earl Jones in the pre-Broadway production of "Othello." At a Sunday matinee, his sword slipped out of his hand and sailed off into the audience, nicking a woman in the front row.
"I nearly died," says Plummer. "I had to jump into the audience and rescue it from the back of this poor lady's chair. I thought I'd got her right between the eyes. You have to deal with those things immediately, and I knew if I didn't leave the stage and fix the problem instantly, the audience would be talking about it for the next 25 minutes."
According to theatergoers at that performance, when Plummer stepped off the stage, he remained in character, which, considering he was playing villainous Iago, could mean he was either courtly or murderous. "It looked like a bit of both for a second," he acknowledges with a laugh, adding that his victim was a very good sport. "She came backstage afterwards," he recalls. "She felt like part of the play."
An experience Plummer had with a prompter at the start of his career is especially apropos for "Barrymore." The play's fictitious premise is that shortly before his death, John Barrymore has rented a New York theater to rehearse a comeback of his triumphant "Richard III." A prompter, however, has to keep reminding the fading star of his lines.
Playwright Luce explains, "Barrymore was terrified of going mad as his father had, and his lapses of memory -- of course it was the drink -- alarmed him more and more. He could not remember his lines."
In Plummer's case, the incident with a prompter took place at age 17, when he was recruited to fill in at the last minute in a Canadian production of Sheridan's "The Rivals."
"I took over a part for one night," he says. "For some reason I had the gall to do that. Then I couldn't remember my lines, and I looked over to get some help from [the prompt girl], and she was reading a comic book. She wasn't even reading the text. So I just started to ad-lib. I had a long conversation with her, and the audience absolutely adored it."
Someone less self-assured might have forsaken the acting profession then and there. But for Plummer, the audience's reaction was the equivalent of surviving a trial by fire. "I knew I was OK," he continues. "I knew I could get myself out of trouble."
Incidents like this are no doubt helpful in working on "Barrymore," but Plummer also engaged in some more specific research. Besides Fowler's biography, he relied on Margot Peters' 1990 "The House Barrymore," and also read some of Barrymore's letters and listened to his recordings.
One of his more unusual bits of research was Barrymore's medical records, which were shown to him by a Barrymore aficionado in Florida. "That was interesting," Plummer says, "on the medical end of it, how many diseases he had and how long he lasted. His heart, which was extraordinarily strong, kept him alive much longer than any of the doctors expected. That could be in a symbolic sense. One, that he had a generous heart -- he gave his life away every day of the year -- and also he was physically strong."
Another useful tool was Plummer's friendship with Barrymore's actress daughter Diana. "I knew Diana quite well. I met her in Montreal when I was 16. She was playing in a nightclub. She must have been about 28," he explains. "I was very fond of her and very impressed with her. I thought she was very glamorous and very naughty and drank a lot. Of course, she drank herself to death earlier than anyone else.
"I remember seeing her only a few weeks before she died. She had gone off the booze, [but] retained her sexy, young figure. Then she went back on the booze, and the shock killed her. She was full of stories of Jack. By the time I'd finished with Diana I kind of knew her father."
Plummer, director Gene Saks and playwright Luce have been refining "Barrymore" ever since its debut at Canada's Stratford Festival in September. The actor says most of the changes have been subtle, but Luce praises Plummer's contributions saying, "He's a collaborator in the highest sense. He has an understanding of the mind of John Barrymore."
He cites, for example, Plummer's suggesting the quotes from Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra" that frame the play -- "Let's have one other gaudy night" at the beginning, and "I have lost command" near the end.
Though Barrymore's daughter Diana never had a career to rival John's, Plummer's daughter Amanda (from his first marriage, to Tammy Grimes) is a Tony Award winner, like her father. Their relationship was reportedly distant during Amanda's childhood, but as adults they are fans of each other's work.
"Amanda saw the play in Stratford," says Luce. "She wrote to me and said she 'loved the play and Dad.' "
For his part, Plummer says he hopes to work with his daughter someday. "When she first became successful, everyone wanted us to do something together," he says. But at the time, he feared it would look "like capitalizing on one's daughter's success."
An actor who has rarely been satisfied with the outcome of his films, Plummer says proudly, "I'm very glad she comes back to the theater and is not ignoring it."
He even has a joint theatrical project in mind -- Jean Anouilh's "The Lark," in which Plummer appeared on Broadway in 1955. "It's a perfect part for Amanda," he says of the lead role of Joan of Arc. "I might even direct it."
Meanwhile, he's busy conjuring up the ghost of John Barrymore on stage. Plummer says he suspects he and Barrymore would have been great friends if they'd been contemporaries.
Then he pauses to reconsider and adds, "Oh, God, I think we would drink ourselves to death together. We might have hastened each other's death along. I'm glad we didn't know each other. I'm still around and seven years older than he was when he died."
Where: Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Through March 2
Call: (410) 752-1200
What: Benefit for the Shakespeare Globe Center (USA) Teachers' Fellowship Fund, which will help send American teachers to study at London's restored Globe Theatre. Ticket price includes the play and a reception with Christopher Plummer, a Globe board member.
Where: Mechanic Theatre
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Call: (410) 435-6000
Pub Date: 2/18/97