"Ned and Jack" is a wholly synthetic evening, a lifeless charade. Sheldon Rosen's play, which came to the Little Theater last night, considers a late-night encounter (the date is specified as Nov. 17, 1922) between John Barrymore during his celebrated Broadway "Hamlet" engagement and the playwright Edward (Ned) Sheldon in the latter's lavishly-appointed Manhattan apartment. I couldn't believe a word of it.
Rosen's premise is that the brilliant, rich, attractive but insufficiently adventurous writer, much admired in his day (his "The Boss" was resurrected a few years back at the Brooklyn Academy of Music), inspired his dissolute pal to shape up and test his resources to the full, which of course Barrymore triumphantly did. At the same time (at least for the play's convenience, since the writer was actually stricken several years earlier), Sheldon was beginning to waste away from a form of arthritis which would gradually atrophy his entire body. Both men, who were to die at 60, are seen in their 40s, the playwright four years the actor's senior.
Even lacking a first-hand knowledge of either man, one could accept Rosen's premise as a viable dramatic springboard, but he isn't up to it. As if overawed by the mere presence of this famous pair in his mind, he has neglected to recreate them, preferring to settle for tags (Jack's heavy drinking, womanizing, and flamboyant behavior; Ned's more restrained, seemingly shy manner until he reveals the nature of his disease to his close friend near the finish).
So the all-night binge of words and champagne, following a brief pre-Jack visit by sister Ethel to fill us in on the title figures and their current estate, amounts to little more than posturing by the actor (still in costume following a post-performance fling with a teenage extra) and withdrawal by the frail writer. Barrymore, who has climbed 14 flights by fire escape while carrying three bottles of bubbly, attempts to shake up his old pal by recalling past escapades of theirs and suggesting new ones, but gets no further than the balcony for a urinating duet aimed at the street below.
While Jack makes light of his profession (he's shown about to give up the stage for Hollywood, to "get more for less," though he actually took his Hamlet to London a few years later), Ned ruminates dreamily between nervous laughs at his friend's jests, even going so far as to greet the dawn (ever the man of the theater) by saying, "The sun must be poised in the wings by now."
Peter Michael Goetz plays Jack with swagger and a rich, round voice, but blandly, for all that, without any suggestion of the Barrymore authority and dangerous charm: his face is too full, his profile merely acceptable, his speech not quite incisive enough, and his tipsy walk too well-regulated, its short steps like those of a lackadaisical penguin.
John Vickery's Ned, looking almost boyish beside Goetz's Jack, is better played, but then it's a less showy role, mainly a foil for the other's thrusts. As Ethel, Barbara Sohmers is an engaging enough presence, but she might just as well be doing Luella Gear as the Barrymore sister with the unforgettable voice. Sean Griffin has the tiny part of Ned's houseman.
Colleen Dewhurst has staged all this with considerable flair, and in a handsome blue setting that could be admired unreservedly were it not much too tidy a place for even the most meticulous writer. The costumes have the right amount of dash, and the lighting is in accordance with the romantic nature of the piece.
When all is said and done. Ned's white cockatoo Charlie, frequently adressed by Jack and at least once by Ethel, arouses greater interest than the others whenever his cage is uncovered. Charlies judiciously remains quiet.
It is 1922 at its most 1922-ish. A penthouse on Manhattan's East Side overlooking the twinkling lights of success. A study - a very grand piano, swathed velvet drapes, theatricla posters and memorabilia, a chaise-lounge, and the glimpse of a book-lined gallery through an elaborate doorway. This is the beginning of Sheldon Rosen's Ned and Jack, which opened at the Little Theatre last night.
Two friends are meeting at the absolute turning points of their respective lives. They are Edward (Ned) Sheldon, the playwright, and John (Jack) Barrymore, the actor. It is after midnight. Earlier that night Barrymore had made his triumphant debut as Hamlet, with 18 curtain calls and general adulation.
Sheldon could not attend the performance - he is at present too sickly for theaters or parties - but Barrymore's sister Ethel drops in on Sheldon to tell him the good news. She leaves, and suddenly Barrymore himself appears, having climbed up the fire-escape.
He is still dressed in his Hamlet costume (likely? with Barrymore, perhaps) over which he has thrown a camel's-hair coat, and he is wearing a matching fedora of dashing cut. He bears with him three bottles of champagne.
The two friends talk the night away Barrymore's transition from an essentially lightweight actor with a matinee-idol profile that is the theater's equivalent of Mount Rushmore has successfully made himself into a major classical actor. He has trained, worked, even give up booze. But he knows it won't last. It didn't.
Earlier that same day Sheldon had been told that he had a progressively degenerative disease that while not quite killing him would quite soon render him immobile for life. It did.
Through a rather drunken episode - made ironical more by the future than the past - they bare souls while all the time parrying and thrusting with rapiers of wit.
The play is inevitably wordy - not a play for people who do not wish to listen intently, but it is fascinating in the contrast of characters, and for that matter, the contrast of destinies. Also it must be admitted that the play possibly means more to theatre-buffs - the kind of person who would know who Basil Sidney was - than the hoi polloi.
Yet despite the occasional in-joke, the wit of this confrontation, and not only the wit but the poignancy, is fascinating.
The play's twists and turns are elaborate but persuasive. Here is Barrymore savoring his triumph and tasting in his mouth a hint of ashes. Here is Sheldon trying to accustom his change from successful young playwright (he was 36 at this time and did not die until he was 60) to life-long bedridden invalid. Or, for another example, take Barrymore's anger at Sheldon's illness realizing that a vital prop had been removed from his own life.
Colleen Dewhurst in her first directorial assignment has done a most subtle job. Visually, with Sheldon at the play's still center resting on his chaise-lounge, while Barrymore buzzes around like an anxious wasp, it is fine. And the timing is whiplash crisp. The setting, decently opulent, by James Leonard Jay and the costumes by David Marin add to the evening's pleasure and authenticity.
The play - which started in Canada - was first seen in New York last season at the Hudson Guild. This Broadway version has been slightly rewritten, advantageously I think and largely recast. The held-over exception is Peter Michael Goetz's bragadoccio performance as Barrymore.
Goetz even manages to look a little like Barrymore, and his whirling histrionics cut the breath away. He is now matched by John Vickery as a wan and wry Sheldon, a man bidding farewell to life as he knew it. Together, with the marked assistance of Mr. Rosen's play, they make a formidably odd couple.
Of the rest Barbara Sohmers is uncommonly fetching as Ethel Barrymore - was Ethel herself ever so glamorous? - and Sean Griffin has a nice scene as Sheldon's concerned manservant.
When life imitates art, the results are not always salutary. Sheldon Rosen's play ''Ned and Jack,'' which opened at the refurbished Little Theater last night, is the story of two legendary theater friends, the playwright Edward (Ned) Sheldon and the actor John (Jack) Barrymore, who rose to the heights only to slide, steadily and inexorably, into doom during the last two decades of their lives. What happened to these men, I'm sorry to report, has also happened to the play that contains them. In its Off Broadway production last spring at the Hudson Guild, ''Ned and Jack'' was a spirited and touching, if small and unformed, work that brought its two quixotic heroes to life. In the Broadway version, the spark has dimmed.
There are clear reasons for this, all of which dramatize the fragility of theatrical endeavors. When Off Broadway plays are remounted for Broadway, they are often improved, but they can also be fussed with too much, until the original virtues are either obscured or dismantled. So it is here. Although ''Ned and Jack'' certainly needed revisions to make its move, Mr. Rosen and his first-time director, Colleen Dewhurst, haven't made the right ones.
What remains appealing about ''Ned and Jack'' is the theatricality of its premise. Mr. Rosen has invented a hypothetical encounter between his title characters on the night of Jack's greatest triumph - his Broadway opening as Hamlet in 1922. As the men drink bootleg Mumm's and celebrate Jack's success in Ned's penthouse (evocatively designed by James Leonard Joy), the clouds of their bleak futures gather. Sheldon, one of the most successful and innovative American playwrights of his time, is beginning to succumb to a ''marauding arthritis'' that would soon turn him into a totally paralyzed shut-in. Barrymore is giving way to the financial blandishments of Hollywood, where he would eventually spend his talent in a long self-destructive tailspin.
Neither friend can save the other. By the second act of ''Ned and Jack,'' the heroes realize, as their contemporary, Scott Fitzgerald, did, that there are no second acts in some American lives. ''A star always burns its brightest just before it fizzles out,'' says Jack. Once the men confront this fact, the play achieves a glimmer of power. John Vickery, as Ned, and Peter Michael Goetz, as Jack, reach out to offer each other love and salvation, only to pull back in helpless, unspoken acceptance of their fates. As Jack leaves Ned behind at dawn, it's clear that, for these men, a long day's journey into night has just begun.
Until its climax, ''Ned and Jack'' has its own case of marauding arthritis. Now as before, the play begins with a thud - a chatty, dramatically unassimilated scene in which Ethel Barrymore (Barbara Sohmers) precedes Jack to Ned's apartment for the sole purpose of filling in Mr. Rosen's exposition. The archness of this time-killing prologue is further accentuated by the addition of a butler (Sean Griffin), who comes on to impart grave hints about Ned's illness. He exists only so the audience can learn about Ned's condition a full act before Jack does - a contrived dramatic strategy, even if more artfully executed.
The first scene isn't over before we must confront another problem - and, sad to say, it's Mr. Vickery, a newcomer to the cast. This young actor gave one of the most exciting performances of the year as Prince Hal in Central Park last summer. Here he is unaccountably - and, one trusts, temporarily - at sea. His Ned is an artificial drawing-room-comedy caricature - from his fake, rueful chuckles to his exaggeratedly raised eyebrows to his mannered, epicene voice. He seems more like the kind of frivolous, dandified playwright Sheldon revolted against than Sheldon himself. Because we feel nothing for him, half the play capsizes.
Mr. Goetz is better. Still wearing his Hamlet costume and gradually falling into a drunken irascibility, his Jack captures much of Barrymore's wit, vanity, bravado and self-recriminatory despair. But in part because of Mr. Vickery's opaque, actorish performance, the fiery edge of Mr. Goetz's star impersonation is blunted. So is the unpretentious spontaneity that once illuminated the Ned-Jack relationship - the now-childish, now-sentimental camaraderie of two buddies drinking away a night together.
Some of this deflation may be due to the loss of the Hudson Guild's intimacy. Whatever the cause, the once friskier staging is now punctuated by pregnant pauses that mirror Mr. Vickery's portentous tone. Even the lightest comic scene - in which the two men urinate from Ned's balcony - seems too stately. The writing, too, has calcified. ''Ned and Jack'' is essentially an anecdote, and Mr. Rosen has now broken the rhythm of some lively, free-flowing dialogue by spelling out his authorial hypotheses for the behavior of his characters. Is Ned's illness in part psychosomatic? Was Jack forever traumatized by his stepmother's seduction of him at age 15? These and other theories are dropped stagily into the conversation, never to be expanded upon, and, like the playwright's studied metaphors (caged birds, Seurat sunsets), they do little but weigh the evening down.
It's too bad, because the play's creators obviously feel passion for their theatrical heroes and have worked hard to share that passion with the audience. Perhaps it's because they've worked too hard that last spring's labor of theatrical love now seems like a chore.