The Great Profile
Barrymore. By William Luce. Directed by Gene Saks. Starring Christopher Plummer and John Plumpis. At the Herbst Theater, 401 Van Ness (at McAllister), through Sept. 6. Call 776-1999.

The front lines of U.S. dramatic arts sustained much transformation -- and loss -- in the early '40s. Competing with the massive popularity of music halls and talkies, Broadway turned to easy consumables like sitcoms, musicals, and detective thrillers, and brandished its cache of superstar actors. One such blast from the past was John Barrymore -- a behemoth who broke box-office records in the 1920s Big Apple with his electrifying Richard III and Hamlet, then cocktailed himself right off the stage for a dozen or so years.

Riding the revival wave, he returned in 1942 for a last chance at the limelight in a revival of Richard III, an attempt chronicled in writer William Luce's two-character play Barrymore, starring Canadian-born actor Christopher Plummer. They give us a brief glimpse into an after-hours Barrymore in which we see not so much a titan of the theater but a man struggling to remember his lines, suppress his d.t.'s, and blind himself to the impossibility of recapturing that Broadway tingle.

The play begins when a blue-nosed Barrymore in pinstripes staggers onto the rehearsal stage. Brandishing various props -- swords, fly swatters, bananas -- he begins to prepare for his comeback as "Ruthless Richard ... the turd." As he swashbuckles imaginary foes, his memory is jarred open. He reminisces aloud about many things: his violent, abusive lout of a father; some very private elocution lessons with his actress-debutante stepmother; and the wise words of his eccentric grandmother -- the famed 19th-century diva Mrs. John Drew. She gave him the power to believe in himself, but cautioned, "Jack, you dream too long and too deep. You'll be shocked by awaking." Meanwhile he's mixing and sucking down potions not known to Shakespeare, and the drinkies lead him to forget what the Bard did know -- namely, the play. Between swallows Barrymore barks at his prompter, offstage presence John Plumpis, to give him a line.

The simple pop-psych cause-and-effect explanation of the great actor's downfall is neatly avoided thanks to Christopher Plummer's brilliant performance, which juxtaposes the petulant actor-child with the ironic octogenarian baring the open wounds of a fishbowl life lived with cocktail shaker in hand. Plummer gives the audience a completely convincing portrait of a brilliant, witty, self-knowing, yet asshole-ish has-been suffering from a rather universal problem: the debilitating fear of screwing up.

It is unfortunate that he doesn't have a better script to work from; Luce is writing down to the lowest common denominator. His Barrymore's concentrated, soul-revealing moments are too often punctuated and even obliterated by a whirlwind of callow references with misogynistic overtones: "If I don't pay alimony next week, can my wives repossess me?" And Luce tends to overwrite. The prompter abuse is too much, and giving Barrymore lines like "Now, like Richard, I am lost" probably has the actor spinning in his grave.

Yet, for the most part, Plummer's masterful performance overcomes the script's thudding flaws. And maybe Luce's writing shouldn't be slammed too hard: Maybe, like his '40s counterparts, he's just keeping the theater afloat by providing the fodder -- star billing and ready-mades -- that contemporary audiences' conspicuously consumptive appetites demand.

-- Frederick Luis Aldama

Somewhat Solo
"Elements of Soul." Featuring Michael Dolman, Alfreda Mitchell, the Idris Ackamoor Ensemble, and Denise Perrier. Presented as part of Afro Solo V at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission (at Third Street), Aug. 22. Call 346-9344.

Last year I pointed out that no review of a single Afro Solo event could sum up the whole festival, which had nights of political theater, poetry, music, and dance; and this year the same thing held true, since not much on the menu had changed. So last weekend I decided to take in the main, Saturday-evening lineup of music rather than any of the theater.

"Elements of Soul" included piano spirituals, gospel, jazz, and an upscale blues tribute to Dinah Washington; and it has to be said, in all strictness, that not every performance was "solo." Three out of four involved a band.

Michael Dolman played a few old spirituals on the grand piano -- plangent, mournful melodies like "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" and "Steal Away to Jesus" -- which were graceful and beautiful but demure, somehow lacking in force. Dolman alternated with some shimmery minor-toned ragtime, especially Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag," the tune that made Joplin world famous in 1898 and opened the way, Dolman said, for other black composers to get published. (Back then you got "published," as a musician, not recorded.) "The spirituals tell us about Sunday," Dolman said suavely, "but ragtime tells us about the other six days of the week," and after his set came the redoubtable Alfreda Mitchell, a gospel singer who told about Sunday as if it were late on a Friday night. Mitchell belted out born-again gospel anthems like a woman possessed (if that's not a blasphemous thing to say), showing off on the high notes and making everyone get to their feet. Her backup band was a little disappointing -- glib and unremarkable -- but a song she called her "prayer-time" exercise, a brooding, a cappella repetition of the line "Talkin' about a child/ That sho loved Jesus," was raw and beautiful, as strangely awe-inspiring as the sound of a huge pipe organ loosening up.

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