Review of I Hate Hamlet at Playhouse on Park
Paul Rudnick’s I Hate Hamlet, directed by Vince Tycer at Playhouse on Park, reads like an amiable sit-com where the hero, an actor, could easily be a Bob Denver or Michael J. Fox type who finds himself having to undergo “growth”—for the sake of laughs and, ultimately, some theatrical values.
Andrew (Dan Whelton) is a successful TV actor who has recently—all the furniture still has sheets on it—moved into a Tudor-looking apartment in New York, formerly owned by John Barrymore, one of the preeminent Shakespearean actors of his era. This isn’t a selling point for Andrew, but is for his girlfriend Deirdre, a budding actress who adores the Bard. So there you have the two strains of Rudnick’s universe: the Bardolators vs. those who are sick of having Shakespeare rammed down their throats. In fact, if the play were called “I’m Sick of Shakespeare” it might have more to offer: at least there would be the hope that the script would do take-offs on the robustious over-acting and posturing that oftentimes goes by the name of “Shakespearean acting.” But that’s not the target here. Rather, an impromptu séance led by Andrew’s real estate agent, Felicia (Julia Hochner) and including his theatrical agent Lillian (Ruth Neaveill) leads to an appearance—at first for Andrew’s eyes only—of the ghost of Barrymore himself (played with great ease of manner and an air of grand noblesse oblige by Ezra Barnes, in a becoming “suit of solemn black,” with tights, cape and codpiece, by Soule Golden).
Barrymore has returned from the dead, you see, tasked with the duty of making Andrew accept and, if possible, shine in the role of Hamlet in the park. But that doesn’t mean this is a primer in how to act Hamlet—Barrymore’s only real advice on that score is Hamlet’s advice to the players, pretty much stolen verbatim—or even on how to use Hamlet as a foil for the actor’s own agenda. Andrew doesn’t really have one of those, except to vacillate like a whiny Hamlet and wish his virginal fiancée would consent to making the beast with two backs. One of the more humorous moments on that score is when he finds out, to his surprise, that the surest way to fan her flame is to fume with “get thee to a nunnery.”
There’s also tame fun at the expense of an L.A. agent who can’t wait to get Andrew away from the footlights and back before the television cameras—David Lanson plays Gary as an earnest guy for whom the point of show biz is making the most money from the biggest show. There’s not much to be gained, except maybe some grudging respect from drama critics, by humbling oneself live each night as Hamlet outdoors. Maybe when Rudnick’s play opened, back in 1991, L.A. types were fresher as a concept, but as it stands now, the show-biz part of the show is a bit like watching a re-run to catch someone’s early work.
So, in lieu of big laughs at the expense of Shakespearean rhetoric or of show-biz neurotics, the high point of the show is a touching moment of middle-aged amour. Lillian, you see, once had a fling with the oft-flinging, iamb-slinging Barrymore and the scene in which their old times hover around them again as a possible present—Barrymore is a substantial ghost and can control who sees him and who doesn’t—is tinged with sweet sincerity. Much more so, on that score, than the amorous jousting of Andrew and Deirdre, even if she does melt once he does his duty—and takes his lumps—trying to talk the talk of the melancholy Dane. And the sword-fight between Barrymore and Andrew is pretty good too.
Then there’s the play’s other high point: Whelton’s growth moment. It’s not that Andrew becomes a Hamlet worthy of Barrymore, nor probably even a Hamlet worthy of Central Park, but that he comes to realize the value of live performance. His speech about seeing the Bard’s words connect with a kid, bored and uneasy a moment before, who suddenly cares whether or not the Prince will decide to be or not, ropes in all us easy marks, ready to be reassured about the meaning and prestige of live theater over the more commercial variety commandeered by clips and edits. Whatever Andrew’s merits as actor (or lover), we see that at least he’s learning what it means to have presence.
And if you should be present for I Hate Hamlet, you’ll find a game cast that earns its applause in this easy-going play.
I Hate Hamlet
By Paul Rudnick
Directed by Vince Tycer
Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Scenic Designer: Emily Nichols; Lighting Designer: Marcus Abbott; Costume Designer: Soule Golden; Properties Master: Pamela Lang; Photos: Rich Wagner
Cast: Ezra Barnes, Julia Hochner, David Lanson, Ruth Neaveill, Susan Slotoroff, Dan Whelton
Playhouse on Park
February 24-March 13, 2016