The audience crowds the ornate Elgin Theater. The lights dim. The curtain rises. There’s an empty stage, but two men are shouting from either side. And then, Christopher Plummer strides to center stage in a crisp 1920s navy suit and fedora to thunderous applause. Except, it isn’t Christopher Plummer: it’s Jack Barrymore.
William Luce’s play ‘Barrymore,’ based on the turbulent life and times of Broadway and Hollywood actor Jack Barrymore, is a witty, wry, and exceedingly well written piece of theater. Filled with one liners (“We were blissfully happy for twenty years. And then we met”) but also balanced out with emotional substance of the aging Jack Barrymore attempting to come to terms with the end of his career as well as his impending death, the one man show is an engaging piece of theater, to say the least, and an utter triumph.
But no matter how good a script is, a play simply can’t succeed without actors who commit to the material. Luckily for us in the audience, Plummer is pitch perfect on stage. He successfully and effortlessly carries the entire play on his shoulders. He’s sensitive, thoughtful, crass, drunk, rude, and hilarious all at once when he plays, or rather, becomes Jack Barrymore. Plummer also pulls off imitations of others with ease: Jack’s slow speaking brother Lionel, a typical Hollywood agent, his grandma, or his ‘Mum Mum’ as he calls her and many, many others. If you didn’t think Plummer could do funny after seeing him in the ultra-sober role of Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest at the Stratford Festival this past summer, you had best think again. After all, this is the role that brought Plummer his second Tony award after five wildly successful years where it took Broadway by storm.
The only other actor in the whole play doesn’t even appear on stage (at least until the curtain call). As Frank, the irate, annoyed, but secretly very caring stage assistant, John Plumpis propels the play forward by providing segways to other aspects of Barrymore’s life while also acting as an anchor that brings Jack down when he gets too carried away. Plummer and Plumpis manage to create undeniable chemistry without the latter ever appearing on the sparse studio stage.
Although the stage itself is simple, the idea of a ‘behind the scenes’ look at theater in the 1920s is effective. The stage is ornamented with precious few objects: a rack of clothing, some curtains, a few chairs, and a mini bar Barrymore gleefully wheels out in the first few moments of the play. The costumes complement the staging in their well done simplicity. A crisply tailored suit and a Shakespearean actor’s attire are the only two, but both are simply props to add flourish to Plummer’s performance, as well as being finely tuned to the tone of the play.
The man who created this crucial tone – or rather, the several shades that make Barrymore such an enjoyable theatrical experience – is the excellent veteran director Gene Saks. He helmed classic movies like Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple (both based on hit Broadway plays) and has picked up three Tony Awards for his Broadway directions. Although his most frequent collaborator is the great Neil Simon, his work with Luxe on Barrymore is without a doubt one of his biggest successes. Saks balances levity with depth and leaves the audience wanting more.
Barrymore is playing at the Elgin Theater, located at 189 Yonge Street by Yonge and Queen, until March 9. The nearest subway station is Queen.
Tickets are $55 – $155. The play is performed every night, except Sundays and Thursdays, at 8PM.You can book tickets online.