Just how do you profile "The Great Profile"?
Not a problem for director Jon Marans, who is doing just that in William Luce's playBarrymore, opening Oct. 13 at the Bristol Riverside Theatre in Bristol, Pa.
After all, says Marans, John Barrymore — scion of an iconic Philadelphia theatrical family whose matinee-idol looks earned him the appellation of "The Great Profile" and who cut his profile as a hell-raiser before dying at age 60 in 1942 — "was the Russell Crowe, the Charlie Sheen — well, maybe not as much Charlie Sheen — of his day."
John Barrymore as "warlock"? The actor was a lock for membership in the inner circle of theatrical/movie "bad boys," decades before the group Inner Circle recorded the hit song of the same name: Barrymore's womanizing ways and drunkenness dragged on a career of artistic achievements (on stage in Hamlet and Richard III; on screen in Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and Grand Hotel).
His was a life of grandeur that raised the roof and brought down the house, all a perfect fit for Marans, whose speciality as director/playwright is in the larger than life . "But," says Marans, "I think most people don't know who he is anymore."
Barrymore, he hopes, will rectify that. After all, it would take more than two-and-a-half men to compete with the late actor's brawl of a bio saturated in 100-proof performances that ended in his early death.
"He didn't take his life that seriously but he did know his own flaws," adds Marans of the actor, who was brother to Lionel and grandfather of Drew. And it all comes out in the play, which hits home on his exploits without being an homage, adds Marans.
Is it possible that Barrymore could win a "Barrymore"? Marans laughs, noting that when someone brought up the Barrymores — the Philadelphia's version of the Tony Awards — he had no idea what they were talking about.
Not that Marans is unfamiliar with Philadelphia lore. His biggest playwriting hit to date, Old Wicked Songs, with its focus on the Holocaust and how anti-Semitism transcends the ages, started out at the Walnut Street Theatre here 15 years ago before heading to New York, earning him a spot as a finalist for the 1996 Pulitzer Prize.
Indeed, Jewish anthems have had a dramatic impact on the playwright over the years, threading through A Strange and Separate People, with its focus on gay Orthodox Jews (Marans is Jewish and gay); and The Temperamentals (code name for gays in the 1950s), about designer Rudi Gernreich, a Viennese Jew who fled the Nazis only to hit the wall of prejudice here as a gay man in the pre-Stonewall Riot days of gay liberation.
The Temperamentals will be staged at Philly's Mauckingbird Theatre next spring.
Marans returns to Bristol in January, with the world premiere of a play fashioned on the interior design world, A Raw Space. But for now, that theater's space is being filled with the raw and rollicking life that was Barrymore.