12/9/2013 4:31 PM
As a fan of John Barrymore, and even more, a great admirer of the remarkable Edward Sheldon, author of Romance, Salvation Nell, and several other plays of the Progressive era, I found NED AND JACK, by Sheldon Rosen, fascinating.
I admire Ned Sheldon's courage and refusal to allow his illness to drag him down into despair, his Bodhisattva-like determination to be present for others, to call forth the creativity of his friends and acquaintances, and to be a presence in the lives of those who depended on him for support and guidance. Perhaps his life has been romanticized to some extent, but the evidence is ample to support his transcendent ability to be a guide and friend to those he loved. John Barrymore seems to have been the fortunate recipient of a great deal of this devotion to himself as a friend and also to the genius he possessed but was, before Sheldon's guidance toward Barrymore's triumph in Hamlet, unable to really use. He was a fortunate man.
The main problem with this play, as I saw it, was that fans of Sheldon and Barrymore, or students of that period in the American theater, are more likely to understand and enjoy the nuances of Ned and Jack than those who do not know the story well.
I am not sure that this is a real depiction of Ned Sheldon's way of expressing himself to Barrymore; few of us can possibly know, except from his letters and from anecdotes in books about him, how he actually interacted with Barrymore, and how he would have explained his illness to "Jack." Did he indeed give Charlie (named for Charles MacArthur, I presume) to Barrymore? That was fascinating.
I am not sure it was a clearheaded dramatization of Sheldon's way of operating, or of the circumstances of that moment in the two men's lives. However, their love and closeness comes across. I am not sure why Sheldon allows Barrymore to tear up "The Lonely Heart" though this surely was one of Sheldon's lesser plays, oversentimental and a kind of bowing at the feet of Doris Keane, his great love...
Anyway, I am glad there IS a play about Sheldon. I wish it were more clear what he did for his friends and (in secret) for the theater and films. But I enjoyed the play and urge that people read or see it as it depicts a period in American history that is special. The Barrymore character is a great depiction of that mad, but great, actor. I liked the entire thing, though of course there were things I'd change...