John Barrymore’s Hamlet “had a withering wit….Though undisciplined, it crackled with the lightning of personality,” wrote the critic John Mason Brown; he could just as well have been describing the flamboyant, self-destructive star himself. Barrymore’s back in Chicago (where he made his stage debut in 1903), uncannily reincarnated by Christopher Plummer in this Broadway-bound tour de force. A superb technician, Plummer portrays the jazz age’s greatest classical actor in 1942 (the year of his death), as a charismatic, caustically funny charmer and aging alcoholic battling the demons of fear and failure. Ostensibly rehearsing his comeback as Richard III (he spends the second act decked out in full Richard drag–wig, hunchback, and all), Plummer’s Barrymore would rather ramble than work. A jaunty figure of battered, boozy grandeur, he declaims Shakespeare, dances a soft-shoe, and tosses off raffish, ribald anecdotes about himself, his matinee-idol profile (“Who came up with the notion of ‘big nose, big dick’?”), his four failed marriages (if he defaults on his alimony, he asks, can his ex-wives repossess him?), and his famous friends (including W.C. Fields and John Gilbert) and family–his siblings Lionel and Ethel, their abusive, absinthe-addicted father Maurice, and their beloved grandmother Louisa, the matriarch of a theatrical dynasty that extends to present-day film star Drew Barrymore. Peppered with salty one-liners and alliterative insults (an overbearing German nurse is a “Wagnerian vixen,” George Bernard Shaw is “that fatheaded Fabian”), William Luce’s somewhat shallow script doesn’t achieve the climactic power it aims for, but under Gene Saks’s direction it smartly juggles wisecracks and historical information, making for a grandly entertaining evening in–and about–the theater. Shubert Theatre, 22 W. Monroe, 312-902-1500. Through March 9: Thursday, 7:30 PM; Friday, 8 PM; Saturday, 2 and 8 PM; Sunday, 3 PM. $22.50-$50.

–Albert Williams

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Cylla Von Tiedmann.