Perhaps one day someone will write a play titled “I Hate I Hate Hamlet” about a 20-something actor given the chance to try his hand as the main character in a production of Paul Rudnick’s actual comedy, “I Hate Hamlet.” But for now, we’re left with the Rudnick’s nearly 30-year old original, which opened over the February 28th weekend at West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park, where it will run through March 13.
In Vince Tycer’s directorial debut at the Playhouse, “I Hate Hamlet” remains a mildly amusing, but definitely warm-hearted tale about actor Andrew Rally, a popular television star, who’s been offered the chance to limn the role of the Prince of Denmark at New York’s Shakespeare in the Park. Andrew sort of buys into the notion that he’s essentially a TV hack, despite the best efforts of his agent, Lillian, and his girlfriend, Dierdre, to convince him otherwise. He’s been brought kicking and screaming to New York and is ready to quit from the moment he arrives.
The conceit of Rudnick’s play is that the Washington Square penthouse that he rents for the summer is haunted by one of its past residents, the legendary actor and notorious wastrel, John Barrymore (google him, kids). As soon as Andrew screams “I Hate Hamlet” to his encouraging associates, the ghost of The Great Profile manifests itself in full Hamlet garb, dark vest, white shirt and black tights. Barrymore promises that he’s stuck back in the apartment until he fulfills his mission of helping Andrew make his debut as the Melancholy Dane.
Fortunately the evening is anchored by the carefully modulated performance of Ezra Barnes, the Founder and Artistic Director of Shakespeare on the Sound, as Barrymore. Realizing that a certain amount of ham will be necessary to convey the outsized ego of this larger than life figure, Barnes wisely resists any temptation to create a caricature of the figure, instead imbuing his Barrymore with just the right amount of unreserved confidence and cynical authority. Even though Emily Nichols’ set design for the former actor’s Medieval feeling apartment contains a few more elements than typical for a Playhouse on Park production, she’s had no need to provide any extraneous items to accommodate any Barrymore scenery chewing. And on those occasions when Barrymore is required to recite a soliloquy, Barnes handles those lines with an impressive delicacy and intelligence.
‘I Hate Hamlet’ will nonetheless go down in theatrical history for the histrionics of the play’s original Broadway leading man, Nicol Williamson, as Barrymore, who became increasingly alienated from his fellow cast members and at one performance injured that production’s Andrew Rally, the actor Evan Handler (Charlotte’s husband on “Sex and the City”) during one of the two characters’ sword fights. Handler quit the production and the story filled theater news columns for weeks. Luckily, everything seems swimmingly fine between Barnes and the Andrew Rally of this production, Dan Whelton.
With an enlongated face and corresponding nose, Whelton bears a remarkable resemblance to Rudnick, circa 1991 when this play was written and Rudnick, incidentally, was actually living in Barrymore’s old apartment. Whelton effectively captures Andrew’s reluctance and fear about accepting the role of Hamlet, while also conveying the actor’s simultaneous enjoyment of his semi-celebrity status and his relative comfort in the world of television. It is somewhat of a thankless part in that Andrew is frequently a foil for the Barrymore character—more than just in their sword fights—but Whelton is fine in expressing Andrew’s exasperation and frustration with the exercises and advice thrust upon him by the man renown for his own Broadway success as Hamlet in the 1920’s. He’s able to use his facial features, from raised eyebrows to a wide open mouth, to immediately telegraph his feelings.
Valuable support is provided by the mature, stalwart Ruth Neavill as Andrew’s film and theatrical agent, who brings an air of wistfulness to the role. It turns out that she herself has a significant connection to this penthouse apartment that is nicely played out in a scene between her and Barnes in the play’s second act.
David Lanson brings a certain youthful pomposity to the role of Gary, the director of Andrew’s television series who has come to New York to talk Andrew out of his theatrical gig and instead accept a lucrative, multi-million dollar network commitment to a new series. Lanson, in appearance and performance, seems to be channeling Seth Rogen as he reveals his character’s delight in a high living lifestyle.
Susan Slotoroff and Julia Hochner play Andrew’s girlfriend, Deirdre, and his New Yoik-accented real estate agent, Felicia, respectively, who are definitely not from the “Less is More” school of acting. They have been allowed to shout, over-emote, exaggerate their characters’ concerns and issues, over and above what is necessary for a comedy.
Nichols’ set includes a sufficient amount of Elizabethan suggestions, including a coat of armor and a throne-like seat, as well as a stage-style landing that heads up to the apartment’s roof, to accommodate the idea that this was once an indomitable actor’s domain. Soule Golden’s costumes are fine, especially for those characters’ in the play of “Hamlet” itself, though her street clothes are not quite as imaginative.
“I Hate Hamlet” was written somewhat early in Rudnick’s career when he was primarily known for his contributions to magazines such as The New Yorker and Esquire and for a novel about a family remarkably similar to his that enjoys shopping and bargains more than almost anything else called “I’ll Take It.” It wasn’t until a year later with the off-Broadway opening of “Jeffrey” that he found his distinctive, harder comedy style, which was seen in such subsequent works as “The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told,” “Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach,” “The Naked Eye,” and “The New Century,” as well as in his screenplays for “The Addams Family” (uncredited) and “Addams Family Values.”
As a result, “I Hate Hamlet,” lacks the edge, sarcasm and shocking hilarity of his later works. It also has a few 1980’s pop culture references as punch lines which probably go over the heads of many in the audience, including one about making a ten hour film. “I Hate Hamlet” does, however, contain a sense of warmth and connection that tends to permeate nearly all of his works. It’s a gentle comedy that is sporadically and inconsistently funny but would no doubt amuse the easily distracted film critic Libby Gelman-Waxman who knows what she likes.
For information and tickets to “I Hate Hamlet,” contact the Playhouse on Park Box Office at 860.523.5900, ext. 10, or visit the theater’s website at www.PlayhouseOnPark.org.