note: entire contents copyright 2010 by Carl A. Rossi
John Barrymore … Robert Boardman
Lillian Troy … Felicity LaFortune
Deirdre McDavey … Jullian Louis
Andrew Rally … Thom Miller
Felicia Dantine … Melissa Teitel
Gary Peter Lufkowitz … Richard Waterhouse
I finally caught up with Paul Rudnick’s comedy I HATE HAMLET via a Northern Stage production; being acquainted with two of Mr. Rudnick’s plays and two of his screenplays, I conclude that he is first and foremost an entertainer in the Neil Simon tradition of brisk, urban fare where the men are hyper and the women are kooky, and he has just enough of a social conscience to keep the fluff tethered to the earth. I HATE HAMLET is Mr. Rudnick’s valentine to the theatre, its history and its heritage: Andrew, a shallow but successful television actor, has been cast to his dismay as Hamlet in a Joe Papp production in Central Park (remember Joe Papp?); now living in a brownstone apartment that once housed John Barrymore (the Hamlet of his day), Andrew is confronted and encouraged by the latter’s ghost to take on the challenge of playing the greatest classical role ever written --- their debates on Theatre Past versus Theatre Present, where Barrymore’s passionate, bravura style is now considered hammy and over-the-top in the Television Age, form the basis of the comedy; spinning around them are Andrew’s still-virginal fiancée, his aged German agent who once had a fling with Barrymore, the brassy realtor who contacts her mother through séances, and the screenwriter-friend who is already hustling Andrew into another TV series (again, hypers and kooks).
Catherine Dougherty has directed the Northern Stage production as one long, loud cartoon, which works up to a point (my fellow audience-members, hugely enjoying themselves, would disagree); the supporting ensemble are indeed caricatures but I HATE HAMLET is also a meditative comedy between two actors --- to level Barrymore’s artistry to the level of the fiancée’s spastic attempts at Shakespeare is to belittle him in the same way that Norma Desmond’s seductive era is mocked in SUNSET BOULEVARD; ironically, Ms. Dougherty has failed to listen to Barrymore’s Act Two recitation of Hamlet’s speech on how to properly act, matching action to word, etc.; Barrymore’s master-class on the proper way to bow at curtain call is sadly burlesqued --- as missed an opportunity if ever there was one.
Thom Miller is good-looking but bland as Andrew with the quick smile and shtick-timing of a television actor (as required); Mr. Miller’s program-bio reveals no Shakespeare in his past so this could well be a Pirandellian gig for him. Robert Boardman’s Barrymore is sour and freeze-dried and his declaiming voice already has the juice rung out of it (and the production’s run, just started); Mr. Boardman slinks and slithers with sinister step and as soon as Jay Robinson’s Caligula in THE ROBE (1953) came to mind, I could no longer take this Barrymore, seriously. Melissa Teitel’s Felicia the realtor cheerfully billyclubs everything in her path (one thwack was enough for me); as Deirdre the 29-year-old virgin (that’s the character’s identity tag), Jillian Louis does everything but hold up a sign that reads “I AM NOT THIS STOOPID” rather than trying to touch us with feelings, heart, beauty….Felicity LaFortune’s agent is more agreeable because she plays her role slower, preparing us for the evening’s only heartfelt moment: her rejuvenating dance with Barrymore. Under Ms. Doherty’s direction, Richard Waterhouse’s Larry the screenwriter comes off the best: the character, as written, defines “bidda-BANG-bidda-BOOM”, and Mr. Waterhouse has the energy coupled with inventive subtlety to make his creation comic yet humanly recognizable.
But, that’s me, and that’s what I saw. Once the actors have settled in for the run, they may mellow out and prove me wrong. I trust they will.