November 18, 1981

Actors Triumph Over Script in ''Ned and Jack''


There's enough material in ''Ned and Jack'' for a very good play, but playwright Sheldon Rosen has only been able to create a laborious exercise for two actors.

Fortunately for Rosen, John Vickery and Peter Michael Goetz, who play the title roles, are actors of superior talent who have been able to overcome most of the play's shortcomings with the help of Colleen Dewhurst, making her Broadway directorial debut.

But even their splendid efforts cannot hide the fact the ''Ned and Jack,'' which opened at the Little Theater Nov. 8, badly needs tightening up. It's a very talky play for one with so many awkward pauses, terribly unsubtle at times, and willing to make its point once too often.

This is a drama about the unlikely but historically true friendship of legendary playwright Edward (Ned) Shelton, played by Vickery, and actor John (Jack) Barrymore, played by Goetz. It is Nov. 17, 1922, the night of Barrymore's sensational opening in ''Hamlet'' on Broadway and the night after Sheldon has learned that a rare but not fatal case of arthritis is gradually immobilizing him into a ''stone man.''

Since Barrymore credits Sheldon with drying him out and revitalizing his career by getting him to do ''Hamlet,'' he visits the playwright's apartment to find out why his friend did not attend the opening in spite of ''whatever's wrong with you.'' Sheldon is evasive about his illness, but finally tells Barrymore the truth -- that he probably will never leave the apartment again.

Once the secret is out early in the second act, the play takes on momentum and the dialogue often reaches the quick with incisive and ironic wit. Barrymore, in a riptide of remorse, wants to carry Ned off to Tahiti where his life can be a Gauguin idyll with Barrymore acting as nurse.

Sheldon points out Barrymore would be the first to be bored. Hasn't he just said he is already bored with the prospects of a long run on Broadway after one performance? No, Sheldon has decided against fleeing Manhattan, where his success has been achieved, or commiting suicide. He will learn to live with his fate.

Sheldon submits to Barrymore's dramatisation of grief and frustration, then lets him go back to Broadway and his dreams of earning a fortune in films ''where I'd get more for less.'' Actually Sheldon lived 24 years longer, became known as ''The Pope of Broadway'' even though he never left his bedroom, and was a lesson in courage and a professional help to many people in the theater who were his grateful visitors.

''Hamlet'' was the high point in Barrymore's stage career, never to be equalled by any of his film roles. For Barrymore, the inveterate boozer and womanizer, the easy way out was the natural way. For Sheldon it was the unacceptable way. Whatever they had meant to each other as friends could not surmount this basic difference in their attitudes toward responsibility to self.

The first act is much too long in building up to this confrontation of egos and is seriously flawed by an intrusion on the story line by Ethel Barrymore, played with irritating affectation by Barbara Sohmers. There also is a scene between Sheldon and his houseboy, which is wholly gratuitous and should be cut.

Vickery, who looks like the Leyendecker Arrow Shirt hero, is tremendously affecting and never maudlin as a man facing tragedy with gallantry and humor. He is able to suggest a certain effeteness without arousing speculation about his relationship with Barrymore. Vickery came to New York only a year ago from San Francisco and already has appeared in five plays. He really is on his way!

Goetz, a veteran of more than 80 roles at the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, played the Barrymore role in ''Ned and Jack's'' off-Broadway Hudson Guild debut here last season (it was first produced in Vancouver). He is larger than life, has an orotund voice of unusual resonance and flexibility, and is a delightful as a mimic and buffoon. He sees Barrymore in the way Rubens, instead of Van Dyck, would have portrayed Charles I.

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