Volume 17 • Issue 13 | August 13 - 19, 2004

Theater

Barrymore’s Body
Studio at the Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street
(212) 279-4488.
thru AUGUST 27
Part of the NYCFringe Festival


A bizarre caper by Bogart and Lorre

By Jerry Tallmer

The trouble was, you see, that Jack Warner, in his contempt for actors — up to and including the great John Barrymore — was dangling lifetime security under Peter Lorre’s nose via a seven-year Warner Bros. contract that would keep Lorre, one of the most distinguished stars of pre-Hitler European cinema, slaving away forever in indistinguishable tripe.

And now on a Hollywood sound stage where, under the direction of Michael Curtiz they are shooting “Casablanca” - - this “piece of s—-,” they both feel — Peter Lorre, 38, and Humphrey Bogart, 42, are in a disparaging conversation about Jack Warner, a man they both detest.

“Peter,” says Bogart, “if you sign, this is the last character role you will get here” — that of Ugarte, the furtive little crook of uncertain gender who has somehow laid his hands on two invaluable letters of passage from Casablanca signed by Marshall Petain himself. “You’ll be too busy making monster movies in the B-unit. Why else would he want you?”

The mild, scary, serial murderer of Fritz Lang’s 1931 “M” has what might be called a pre-revenge idea. That very day, May 30, 1942, the body of John Barrymore, dead at 60 of tuberculosis and booze, lies in a Los Angeles funeral parlor. Lorre enlists Bogart, willy-nilly, in a hair-brained scheme to kidnap the corpse of John Barrymore, and sneak it into Jack Warner’s house where the producer will stumble upon it in the morning.

Now Lorre is driving through the night with a bleeding Bogart in the back seat — Bogart’s hellcat first wife, Mayo Methot, has been at him with her claws and a knife — while next to Bogart in that backseat, but as yet unknown to Bogart, is the day-old corpse of the No. 1 American Hamlet, all tied up in a black bag.

“I had this idea a long time ago, well, four years ago,” says 27-year-old Jeff Tabnick, author/director of “Barrymore’s Body,” the black comedy that’s a Fringe Festival entry in the Studio at the Cherry Lane Theatre through August 27.

“First it was just a half-hour thing for a class in the NYU Dramatic Writing Project. People seemed to like it. It took me all this time to know what to do with it.”

What he’s done with it is have Rick Blaine, or Bogart, speak to us in Bogart’s voice, Peter Lorre speak in Lorre’s voice, and Victor Laszlo, or Paul Henreid — the less than manly fink in this case — speak to us in Henreid’s voice, while having a lot of mordant tough-guy fun in the process.

“It started when I read Henreid’s autobiography [‘Ladies; Man, 1984]. In it he says that, while they were making ‘Casablanca,’ Bogart and Lorre stole Barrymore’s body and took it to Jack Warner’s house.”

There’s another version in “Goodnight, Sweet Prince,” Gene Fowler’s touching, entertaining 1944 tribute to old buddy Barrymore. “He says it never really happened. Errol Flynn, in his autobiography [‘My Wicked Wicked Ways,’ 1978], a great book that’s full of so many wonderful lies, says it did happen, but credits [the caper] to three other guys — an artist, a journalist, and I forget the third one.”

In your play it is Peter Lorre who not only drives that car but drives the whole plot.

“That was my intention. What works is the time frame. Barrymore died while they were making ‘Casablanca.’ Lorre [who, as Ugarte, gets killed early in the picture], was only on the set four days, but it was during those four days that Barrymore died.

“What doesn’t work so well is that Paul Henreid was not on the set until another two weeks later.”

Tabnick had directed “a few small 10-minute things,” and hadn’t wanted to direct this two-hour production — “but all the directors I wanted were out of town for the summer. So I thought it’d be an interesting process.”

He first saw “Casablanca” back at Cherry Hill High School East, in a Philadelphia suburb. Has seen it “between 10 and 20 times since,” most recently at that AMC motion-picture fortress on the corner of 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue.

“It’s great to see these actors blown up so big. Bogart with his scar, and those ashes — just great.”

He of course never met Bogart, who left us in 1957, 20 years before Jeff Tabnick was born. “But I met Lauren Bacall at a party once. She yelled at me. I touched her shoulder, I don’t know why. She said: ‘Dahling, don’t touch me!’”

The first half of “Barrymore’s Body” is full of laughs; the last half, if one may say so, has few, if any, laughs.

“Yes, I’ve noticed that,” says the playwright. “It takes a very dark turn” — and ends with Bogart chewing ground glass. “I got that out of a book called ‘The Producer’ — a work of fiction by a friend of Bogart’s in the early ‘50s. It’s funny, when you research this kind of thing it’s like following a rabbit down a hole. You don’t know what’s coming next.”

Casting the show wasn’t easy.

“It took a long time, especially for the Bogart part. Saw more than 50 actors — just kept going and going and going. What I was looking for was not an ‘impression’ of Bogart and the others, but getting at the attitude and hinting at the quality.”

The Bogart at the Cherry Lane is Christian Backous, the Lorre is Dan Truman, the Henreid is Gregory Steinbruner. You won’t find an Ilsa Lund or a Captain Louis Renault or a Major Heinrich Strasser or a fat Signor Ferrari or, at the piano, a Dooley Wilson. But maybe you’ll find some very odd and offbeat thoughts to chew on.



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