The Christian Science Monitor
November 12, 1981

When Actors Play Actors, Results Can Be Impressive


Actors are playing actors in unusual numbers on the Broadway boards this season. ''Nicholas Nickleby'' presents Vincent Crummles and Company in full and tattered array. John Barrymore rails against the player's art in ''Ned and Jack.'' And ''The Dresser'' delivers a tragicomic tribute to a now extinct species - the provincial actor-manager.


Play by Sheldon Rosen. Directed by Colleen Dewhurst.

The opening of ''Ned and Jack,'' at the Little Theater, marked the impressive Broadway directorial debut of Colleen Dewhurst and the arrival of an interesting new playwright. Sheldon Rosen's work of dramatic ''faction'' has had several Canadian productions and received the 1980 Canadian Authors Association prize for the best published drama. Since its local debut last season at the Hudson Guild Theater, the play has been somewhat revised and substantially recast.

With sympathy, admiration, and a good deal of humor, ''Ned and Jack'' commemorates two remarkable American men of the theater: pioneering playwright Edward Sheldon (John Vickery) and John Barrymore (Peter Michael Goetz), star of stage, screen, and radio. Mr. Rosen imagines that Barrymore, still in black tights and jerkin, visited Sheldon, his close friend and mentor, on the triumphant first night of the actor's ''Hamlet'' in 1922.

Messrs. Vickery and Goetz draw the necessary sharp and illuminating contrasts as the two devoted friends talk and drink the night away - each facing his own long-term crisis. For the meteoric but unstable Barrymore, contemptuous of his art, it is a foreboding of ultimate mental disintegration. For the more self-possessed but momentarily shattered Sheldon, it is the prospect of advancing paralysis.

Though ''Ned and Jack'' seldom penetrates much deeper than an effective but showy emotionalism, Rosen clearly respects and values the two men and the talents they represent. Under Miss Dewhurst's sensitive staging, the performance responds to the author's intent. The cast includes Barbara Sohmers in a brief but dashing appearance as elder sister Ethel Barrymore and Sean Griffin as Ned's solicitous manservant, not to mention a magnificent white cockatoo. The cozily luxurious penthouse apartment setting is by James Leonard Joy, with costumes by David Murin, and lighting by Robby Monk.

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