When the Barrymores reigned on stage -- and off: a historical fantasy; Ned and Jack

Playwright Sheldon Rosen calls this play "a fictional event that relates to history the way a milkshake relates to all the ingredients that have been tossed into the blender to make it."

Mr. Rosen shakes up history to imagine that John Barrymore called on his great friend and mentor, Edward (Ned) Sheldon, on the triumphant opening night of Barrymore's "Hamlet" in 1922. What that extraordinary achievement meant to the Great Profile himself and to Sheldon provides the leading theme of the new import at the Hudson Guild Theater.

As the lights go up, Sheldon is hearing about the "Hamlet" premiere from John's sister, Ethel, played with stylish grace by Barbara Caruso. In typical fashion, Barrymore arrives at Sheldon's 14th-floor penthouse, not by the elevator, but buy a fire escape, surmounting the terrace balcony for a thoroughly starry entrance. He is still in costume. Her brief scene completed, Ethel leaves the two friends to a bibulous night of reminiscence, repartee, and sometimes fierce debate.

The nocturnal talking jag foreshadows the future for each of these devoted friends. Barrymore sums up the "Hamlet" effort as "three years of work for four hours of entertainment." He is contemptuous of the art of acting itself, challenging the man whose encouragement played a key role in the development of Barrymore's artistry. Even deeper is his fear of inheriting his father's insanity. Not all of the extravagant Barrymore rhetoric, self-mockery, and Rabelaisian humor can conceal the melancholy underlying his dissipation and capacity for self-destruction.

Sheldon's quiet fortitude and at first muted despair contrasts with his friend's irresolution and temperamental frailty. In the second act, the acclaimed author of "Romance" and other works reveals the nature of the disease that later immobilized him. In a fit of rage, Barrymore tears up pages from the manuscript of Sheldon's new play -- after which the pair scatter the torn pages from the terrace. The act ends on a melancholy note as Ned watches Jack play his balcony scene in reverse and begin his downward climb to the street below.

In her directorial debut, Colleen Dewhurst stages a performance that keeps faith with the artistic truth for which Mr. Rosen is striving. Dwight Schultz (Ned) and Peter Michael Goetz (Jack) reflect vividly the diametrically opposite temperaments of two devoted antagonists, each facing his own particular ordeal. Mr. Schultz compensates with a heightened intensity for the fact that Ned is mostly confined to a chaise lounge. Clad in Hamlet's solemn black, Mr. Goetz strides the stage with restless energy, suggesting the Barrymore stance and manner but avoiding a hammy impersonation. He conveys the volatile actor's tragedy. The theatricality of the occasion is enhanced by the presence of a magnificent white cockatoo.

If anything, "Ned and Jack" perhaps deserves an old-fashioned epilogue of some sort. Although "Hamlet" marked the peak of Barrymore's stage career, he became a distinguished movie star (along with Lionel and Ethel), appearing in more than 40 films between 1922 and 1941. For his part, Edward Sheldon continued his writing career and was a significant behind-the-scenes influence on some of the leading contemporary playmakers until his passing in 1946.

As a fragment, however, "Ned and Jack" justifies itself by commemorating two remarkable figures from a remarkable era in the American theater. It Had to Be You Comedy by Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna, who costar in the production directed by Robert Drivas.

This play overworks a mildly amusing plot device to the point where the improbable becomes the unbelievable. There are jokes aplenty and of varying quality in the comedy that husband-and-wife team Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna have written for themselves. But jokery is not enough. Plausibility is also essential.

The two-character piece opens as Theda Blau (Miss Taylor) is miserably flunking an audition for a TV commercial. Attempting to console the woebegone loser, producer-director Vito Pignoli (Mr. Bologna) escorts Theda home and promptly yields to her advances. She has decided that Vito spells not only Success but Marriage. His entrapment continues through the long hours of a snowy Christmas eve during which, among other things, Theda dragoons the desperate hostage into helping rewrite her six-act drama set in pre-revolutionary Russia.

One of the evening's funniest moments occurs when Theda's crazily cluttered apartment materializes instantly on the open stage of the John Golden Theater (credit designers Lawrence King and Michael Yeargan). Such welcome surprises grow steadily fewer as the playwright-performers strive valiantly to sustain their slender fairy tale. As might be expected from their long list of showbusiness credits, Miss Taylor and Mr. Bologna act "It Had to Be You" with seasoned expertise. The staging is by Robert Drivas, with costumes by Carrie F. Robbins and lighting by Roger Morgan.

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