Two-man play "Barrymore" takes an intimate look at a legend

Explores the life of John as grandson lends a hand
By: Paul Cambra, Features Editor
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When: 7 p.m. Friday, April 19; Saturday, April 20; Friday, April 26; Saturday, April 27
Where: High Hand Nursery, 3750 Taylor Road, Loomis
Cost: $20
Info: (916) 652-2065

When it comes to literary characters, this guy played some classics.  Captain Ahab, Don Juan, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Sherlock Holmes … as well as being his generation’s most acclaimed “Hamlet.”
In a movie career that bridged the silent and sound eras, John Barrymore was acting royalty, and the thespian lineage runs from his grandparents to his grandchildren.  
But John was the movie star. Nicknamed “The Great Profile” because of his matinee-idol looks, Barrymore was as known for his personal exploits — which included four marriages and a penchant for prohibition-era alcohol — as he was for his stage and screen career.
“My grandfather’s legacy is quite broad,” said John Blythe Barrymore. “It’s almost unfortunate, the great actor he was, people who knew him well said he was a poor actor compared to the person he was. He was such an outsized human being.”
A play, aptly titled “Barrymore,” was written about the late actor in the mid 90s. It takes place during  a rehearsal for “Richard III,” where John Barrymore, a few months before his death at age 60, talks to an off-stage “prompter” — as well as the audience — as he struggles to recreate one of his signature roles.
While John Blythe Barrymore, an accomplished actor himself, will be a part of the two-man play, it will be in the role of the prompter. The lead role, originally played by Christopher Plummer on Broadway, for which he won a Tony, will be taken on by actor/director Steve Barkett of Penryn.
“My grandfather was a heavy legacy to live up to,” Barrymore said. “I admire Steve for tackling the part.”
The part requires not only a reasonable impersonation of Barrymore himself, but at least 30 voice characterizations of everyone from W.C. Fields to Louella Parsons. Luckily, Barkett is a student of cinema and already owns film on many of these people.
“I’ve always loved John Barrymore,” Barkett said. “A lot of my film roles were not terribly challenging, a lot of sci-fi and action. But I know John Barrymore. I know his mannerisms, I know his nuances and how he speaks. I have his ‘Hamlet’ screen test. These movies are old friends for me.”
Barkett is just a little bit older (63) than Barrymore was when the play takes place. He says his favorite Barrymore films of the silent era were “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1920) and “Don Juan” (1926). As for talkies, he likes “Svengali” (1931). John Blythe prefers the screwball comedy “Twentieth Century” (1934).
“It’s a brilliant performance,” he said. “It’s such a gas.”
While older brother Lionel can be found without fail every holiday season as Mr. Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and John Blythe’s half-sister, Drew, remains a fixture at the box office, John Barrymore will always be remembered for classics like “Grand Hotel” (1932) and “Dinner at Eight” (1933), and starring opposite leading ladies such as Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, and Carole Lombard.
“A lot of these stories about my grandfather are apocryphal, wild tales,” Barrymore said. “Of course, my grandmother, she told me stories that never really came out, stuff that nobody knows.”
His grandmother was actress Dolores Costello, John Barrymore’s third wife. In her later years, she managed an avocado farm in Southern California, where John Blythe spent a lot of time as a youth.
“I’ve heard stories from Ethel Barrymore and Kate Hepburn,” he said. “I look forward to be able to talk about some of the famous stories.”
After each of the four performances, Barkett and Barrymore will hold a question and answer session with the audience. The show contains ribald humor and some language which may not be appropriate for young children.
“I think this is a delightful play,” Barkett said. “Very surreal, very funny, a lot of interesting anecdotes. There was only one John Barrymore, arguably the greatest actor of the 20th century.”
While John Blythe has “scrupulously avoided” playing his grandfather’s roles, he’s not afraid to play “Hamlet,” and will do so on stage in Carmel this May (yes, there’s a line in “Barrymore” where he says a middle aged actor should not play Hamlet. John Blythe, 58, remains undeterred). After that, the pair will take their production to New York City, for a run at St. Luke’s Theater.
But now’s your chance to see it right here in Placer County, in the intimate setting of the High Hand Nursery.
“I am excited to do this,” Barrymore said. “I love the Sierra Foothills; it’s one of my favorite parts of the world. I am looking forward to spending spring in the foothills and summer in Carmel.”