Paul Rudnick

The Ghost of a Chance

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).

Ezra Barnes (John Barrymore)

Ezra Barnes (John Barrymore)

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.”

Dan Whelton (Andrew), Susan Slotoroff (Deirdre), David Lanson (Gary)

Dan Whelton (Andrew), Susan Slotoroff (Deirdre), David Lanson (Gary)

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.

Ezra Barnes (John Barrymore), Ruth Neaveill (Lillian)

Ezra Barnes (John Barrymore), Ruth Neaveill (Lillian)

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.

Ezra Barnes (John Barrymore), Dan Whelton (Andrew)

Ezra Barnes (John Barrymore), Dan Whelton (Andrew)

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



A post-holiday musing on Jewish literature: Paul Rudnick is my Isaac Bashevis Singer

Come the High Holidays, as previously mentioned, I re-read certain books; the cycle is repeated around Passover. This year's High Holiday season gave me more time than usual to contemplate my personal canon of Jewish literature. My thinking was further prodded by reading in the New York Times of the death of Paul Rudnick's mother. Rudnick wrote one of the books high on my list, a novel called I'll Take It, which is about a young man traveling through New England one October with his mother and her two sisters. They're ostensibly leaf-peepers, but Joe and his mother have an agenda, which is to rob L.L. Bean so that she can get the money to redecorate the living room. I love this book but feel like no one's ever read it except me and my mother. The voracious reader's canon of Jewish literature apparently always has on it Serious Major Works by Serious Writers. I did a casual survey via Facebook (that tells you a lot right there) asking "What Jewish writers or books make up your personal Jewish canon?" Oddly, more Gentiles than Jews responded. But overwhelmingly the names were just what you'd expect to see on a college syllabus for a course entitled "Survey of 20th Century Jewish Literature." Potok; Singer; Roth; Bellow. I was bored thinking about this. One young woman, the brilliant Bekah Dickstein, posted a response immediately that warmed my heart, though: S.J. Perelman. Oh, yes.

To Bekah's eminently sensible suggestion, let me tack on my own list, a short list that came to me with shocking speed once I started thinking about it.

Sydney Taylor's All of a Kind Family books, which are the best way I know to introduce anyone to the Jewish calendar, to Jewish rites and rituals, and to the world of immigrant Jewish life in the early 20th century. The books are written with humor and love and the illustrations (in three of the books by Mary Stevens, in one by Beth and Joe Krush) are imprinted in my head. The Stevens illustrations have a delicacy that I particularly love.

Paul Rudnick's I'll Take It. There will, I'm sure, be someone out there's who's read this and who will be offended by my putting this on my list, saying, "It perpetuates negative Jewish stereotypes" or something like that. Well, it does. On the other hand, it's incredibly funny. Rudnick wrote this before he got big as a screenwriter and the number of genius throwaway lines in here is just astounding.

E.L. Konigsburg's About the B'nai Bagels: a Young Adult novel about little league, being bar mitzvah'd, and stuffed cabbage. Illustrated by Konigsburg, this is one of her earlier titles, and one which I feel gets short shrift, possibly because most people feel its appeal is too specific. That may be. But I don't give a crap about baseball and I read this book all the time.

Rebecca Goldstein's The Mind-Body Problem. I admit I haven't read this in quite a few years but I've always really liked this book. I enjoyed it a lot more than her other novels, which got a little too brainy for me, and I freely admit I've never read any of her non-fiction (what, like I'm going to read a book about Spinoza?).

A recent addition to the Eva Geertz canon of Jewish literature is Elinor Lipman's The Inn at Lake Devine, another light comic novel, about anti-Semitism in America in the 1960s and 1970s. Somehow that sentence strikes me as sounding absurd and heavy-handed, but really, that's what it is.

The essays of Fran Lebowitz are on my list. Judy Blume's Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself would make the cut.

Someone pointed out to me that my list is essentially bigoted, that I've got a bad attitude about people like Roth and Bellow, etc. etc. "Just because they're on everyone else's list doesn't mean they're not worth reading," he said, more or less accusing me of being a snot and a whiner. I'm not saying they're not worth reading though; what I'm saying is that I don't personally want to curl up with a little Saul Bellow when I'm looking for a comforting read. This is not material I'd read for fun, entertainment, relaxation, or escapism. I don't want books that try to ask or answer Big Questions. If anything, clearly, I'm interested in books that will say, "Ok, so, there are Big Questions. Very nice, all well and good but -- do you want another slide of babka? A cup of coffee? I can heat up the milk for you if you want."