By Karen Isaacs
No one will say Paul Rudnick’s I Hate Hamlet is a classic. It is an amusing but lightweight comedy about a young television actor who is attempting to play Hamlet and is coached by John Barrymore’s ghost.
The show which had a brief run on Broadway in 1991, is best known for an infamous incident. Nicol Williamson, the talented but mercurial British actor played Barrymore. His moods, ego and general behavior alienated the cast and crew. Evan Handler played the young actor, Andrew. In the first act, Barrymore and Andrew engage in some sword play; one night during the intricate choreography for the fight, Williamson hit Handler on the rear with the sword. Handler left the stage and quit on the spot; an understudy finished the performance.
Playhouse on Park is presenting a production of I Hate Hamlet through March 13. Overall it is an enjoyable production though it won’t leave you rolling in the aisles.
Andrew is a young actor who has been a huge television star. But he has come to New York and somehow has auditioned for New York’s Public Theater which presents Shakespeare in the Park every summer and been offered the role of Hamlet. But he says he “hates Hamlet.”
Part of his motivation is his girlfriend of five months, Deidre, an aspiring actress who loves Shakespeare. He hopes the role will finally get Deidre into bed with him; though 29, she is determined to remain a virgin until she “knows for sure.” Despite his desire for a modern “California” apartment, his real estate agent has rented for him, sight unseen, a very traditional apartment in which Barrymore lived.
Now, a lot of the play depends on the audience knowing about John Barrymore including that Barrymore was known for his Hamlet, which ran on Broadway for 101 performances and closed only because Barrymore wanted to close it. The actor sometimes called “the profile” had a long career in both stage and film, often playing swash-buckling heroes and ladies men. His personal life was volatile as well, with excess of drinking, multiple marriages and affairs, breakdowns and more.
Andrew is not thrilled with the medieval appearance of the apartment and definitely not thrilled when Deidre and the real estate agent, Felecia attempt a séance to contact Barrymore’s ghost. But after they leave, the ghost does appear in Hamlet-like garb. The two parry and thrust about acting, Andrew’s fear of the role, the “theater,” and sex. Barrymore is appalled at Andrew’s predicament with Deidre. By the end of the act, Andrew is committed to the role and Barrymore is coaching him. Andrew has also turned down his LA friend Gary who tells him that the TV network is interested in a new series that would make each of them huge amounts of money.
In act two, Andrew is committed to the role; he has furnished the apartment in more traditional style with a full suit of armor in the corner; he dresses in tights and has been working with Barrymore diligently. Deidre is a lady in waiting in the play. Gary is still trying to convince him to accept the TV deal and he has also taken up with the realtor. All of them, including Andrew’s agent Lillian, who had a brief fling with Barrymore, go off to the opening. The second scene is the next morning. Andrew has been walking around the city all night; the performance did not go well as he tells Barrymore. As the others arrive – first Gary and then the rest – the critics were in agreement that the effort was weak. But Andrew tells Barrymore about one moment, when he was able to emotionally reach a young teenage boy sitting in the audience. So, he turns down the TV deal to devote himself to stage acting.
This play needs a Barrymore that can project our vision of the larger-than-life actor. Ezra Barnes totally captures the role. He is attractive, he can speak the Shakespearean lines well, and he projects a masculine vitality and vanity. He even looks good in tights!
As Andrew, Dan Whelton does a good job as the somewhat bland, young actor who is unsure of his talent. At times, he seems a little too juvenile in manner. Another standout was David Larson as Gary. He makes him sound and act like a combination of a surfer dude and the ultimate man on the rise.
Ruth Neaveill is fine as Lillian, the agent. She effectively maintains a slight German accent throughout and a sense, at times, of wistfulness.
I had more problems with the two other women and for that I have to put some of the blame on director Vince Tycer. Felicia, as played by Julia Hochner, could be Fran Dresher’s sister replete with nasal voice and laugh, mini-skirts, and two red ovals on her cheeks that are supposed to be rouge but look more clownish. Susan Slotoroff as Deirdre is earnest and seemingly sincere but also silly and bland; it is hard to see why Andrew is so smitten.
Tycer has made effective use of the large, awkward playing area and staged the sword play well. The set by Emily Nichols suggests the apartment, the only set for the show.
I Hate Hamlet is fun but could be better with a little faster pacing and some more coherent interpretations of the characters.
It is at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Rd, West Harford through March 13. For tickets visit playhouseonpark.org or call 860-523-5900.