Review: 'I Hate Hamlet' at Playhouse on Park

Wayne & Stephanie Keeley 

She Said:

Playhouse on Park, an unassuming theater in the heart of West Hartford, took to the challenge of bringing a touch of classic Shakespeare, a few spirits of both the ghostly and inebriating kind, as well as a healthy dose of charming absurdity to the stage – and they did so with skill and finesse. I Hate Hamlet, written in 1991 by American playwright, novelist, screenwriter, and essayist Paul Rudnick, is a zany ride, which like a roller coaster, keeps going and going until your belly is ready to drop out. Deemed by The New York Times as possibly “…the funniest writer for the stage in the United States today,” Rudnick, in Birdman-like fashion, pokes fun at the age-old debate about the art of theatre vs. the celebrity of television and film.

 Photo: Rich Wagner

Photo: Rich Wagner

I Hate Hamlet introduces us to protagonist Andrew Rally, whose biggest claim to fame is for having played a doctor on a recently cancelled TV show, but he’s got questionable chops at best. He has decided to move to the east coast, away from the pretentious L.A. existence and into a sight-unseen apartment, hand-picked by real estate broker extraordinaire Felicia Dantine. His plan is to start anew and try real acting for a change – that is, to sink his teeth into all 1476 lines as the lead in Hamlet. But he’s more than trepidatious about this unpaying new gig despite the fact that it’s what his pushy agent, Lillian Troy, and swooning, virginal, Shakespeare-loving girlfriend Dierdre McDavey, both want. It doesn’t help that he hates Hamlet as well as his strangely Gothic new digs. He has a lot to think about.

Now Andrew initially has no idea that the loft’s former resident was none other than the John Barrymore – the hard-drinking, womanizing star of stage and screen, and the quintessential Hamlet himself. It’s quite a coincidence, or is it? Once the ghost of Barrymore arrives in Hamlet’s full inky cloak, this turns up the pressure for Andrew – and Barrymore’s task is to convince him to face the beast. But when his producer pal from Hollywood, Gary Peter Lefkowitz, comes to complicate matters and tantalize him with a new and very well-paying TV gig – what will Andrew choose?

Director Vince Tycer chose a skilled band of players who were able to camp it up, bouncing back and forth between the heavily comedic elements of the script, thread among a sprinkle of over-the-top Hamlet lines as well as a few from Romeo and Juliet tossed in for good measure. And I couldn’t help but be reminded of several screen actors who some the troupe may inadvertently have channeled – quite a bit of channeling going on, what with Barrymore and Felicia’s mother making their appearances.

The lead, Dan Whelton, did more than just remind me a bit of Jason Biggs. As Andrew he played the bumbling, self-doubting, but adorkable I-play-a-doctor-on-TV persona to a “T” in Act 1 – and then went slightly mad (or was it Method?) in becoming Hamlet in Act 2. Of course this was under the tutelage of Ezra Barnes’ Barrymore, who truly was phenomenal; and while I’ve not seen the true Barrymore’s Hamlet, for me Barnes was awash with Kevin Kline-esque overtones. Barnes was knock-down, drag-out hysterical as the alcoholic, sword-wielding swine; his physical presence as formidable as the delivery of his dialogue. And he successfully managed to overact without overacting!

Real estate agent Felicia, played by Julia Hochner, did a fabulous Fran Fine/Fran Drescher – and she was able to embody the character of nasal and annoyingly endearing, wannabe spiritual medium. And David Lanson as Gary, the uncultured, unflappable, L.A. wheeler and dealer was for me, a Seth Rogen clone. He was equal parts hysterical, pushy, and pompous.

Susan Slotoroff (Dierdre) was just as adorable as she was grating with her ADHD-like flight of ideas and histrionic romanticism; on top of it all, she kept her virginity under lock and key and poor Andrew couldn’t have been more blue over it (pun intended). Ruth Neaveill as quirky, agent-to-the-stars Lillian who reveals her own colorful past, rounded out the cast. She was the perfect pushy agent whose interests were as much for her own gain as her client’s.

I Hate Hamlet never takes itself too seriously and the Playhouse Theatre Group definitely delivered. The design of the theatre-in-the-round lends itself to the perfect kind of intimacy for a piece such as this –the audience feels as much a part of the action as the actors on stage (and it doesn’t hurt that there isn’t a bad seat in the house). This was a truly fun, light-hearted piece that still manages to hit on some of the actual sour notes of what may vex an actor and it brings Shakespeare to the masses. The simple set, designed by Emily Nichols hit the mark and shout-outs to the entire production staff for a job well done!

He Said:

John Barrymore was a key member of an acting family dynasty in the early 1900s; a family business he reluctantly joined to make money, having failed in his pursuit of art. His stage portrayal of Hamlet was legendary and contributed to his being considered one of the greatest American tragedians at the time, although he became somewhat of an alcoholic reprobate later in life.  He was before my time, although I knew of the Barrymores; but then again I had an avid interest in theatre. I doubt if any of Generation Z know him; in fact, I doubt if the Snapchat Generation Z knows anyone who is not in the current viral stream on YouTube or Vine. I remember showing the 1980 Absence of Malice starring Paul Newman and Sally Field to my communication class and one student remarking, “I didn’t know the salad guy acted!” Of course, the children of the eighties may know John Barrymore’s granddaughter, Drew Barrymore, from ET among other films. As Napoleon said, “Glory is fleeting…” or in this case, fame.

Fortunately, for theatregoers, the play I Hate Hamlet, written by Paul Rudnick, seeks to keep the Barrymore legacy alive. In the play, an LA actor, Andrew Rally, who received notoriety playing a doctor on television, moves to New York after his show is cancelled. He reluctantly agrees to play Hamlet in a non-profit, Shakespeare in the Park venue while his agent, Lilian, and Hollywood producer buddy, Gary, seek to rejuvenate his career with more lucrative gigs. To complicate matters, his girlfriend, Dierdre, is a 29-year-old virgin still wrestling with whether Andrew is the “right” guy to take her maidenhead. He finds out from his real estate broker Felicia that he has moved into John Barrymore’s old apartment and is soon visited by John Barrymore himself who, somewhat like the punishment doled out to Marley in A Christmas Carol, is obligated to return to Earth liveried in period costume and tights with the mission to convince the insecure Andrew that he can and should play Hamlet.

 Photo: Rich Wagner

Photo: Rich Wagner

Playhouse on Park’s production of I Hate Hamlet is an engaging, campy foray into questions of art, relationships and love – all vital themes in Shakespeare’s plays. Experienced actor Ezra Barnes as the ghost of John Barrymore is pure joy. Tall, dark and handsome with a booming voice, he makes the perfect Hamlet (I can even see him as a swashbuckling Errol Flynn). He has great comic timing and knows how to work an audience for additional laughs. Dan Whelton is perfect as the insecure and sometimes befuddled Andrew Rally. He brings just the right amount bumbling charm to the role. It’s hard at first to picture him playing Hamlet (which is exactly the point of the play). Yet, when you see him in period costume in Act 2 and hear him test his lines on his girlfriend, I saw glimpses of how good he could be really playing Hamlet. Susan Slotoroff energetically plays the flaky yet adorable Dierdre who is holding on to her virginity with an invisible chastity belt that only a ghost can open (trust me, this will make sense when you see the play). David Larson is hilarious as the two eyeglass toting Hollywood producer Gary. (I think I met a few of his type in my thirty-year film and theatre career.) Julia Hochner as Felicia shows her acting chops channeling a bit of Fran Drescher as the overreaching and overselling real estate agent (I think I met a few of those in my life as well). And last but not least, Ruth Neaveill as Lilian plays a great hardcore agent who makes house calls.  (I really need an agent like that!)   

This production is adeptly and capably directed by veteran Vince Tycer. An experienced and classically trained actor as well, Mr. Tycer has prestigious credits here and abroad. There’s some great sword play thanks to Dan O’Driscoll) and a back flip by Dan Whelton that rivals the backflip that Pele did in the old Stallone movie Victory. (Hey, that’s what critics do – make analogies – it’s not my fault if you haven’t see that Stallone classic.)

And speaking of analogies, there’s something about the success of ghosts and theatre (and I don’t mean Ibsen’s Ghosts). Watching I Hate Hamlet, I was reminded of Woody Allen’s 1969 classic Play It Again Sam featuring the ghost Humphrey Bogart and Tim Kelly’s The Canterville Ghost

If there is a flaw – it is an anachronistic one inherent in the play itself and not in the production. The play makes a sharp divide between what is “real” acting which happens in theatre and “non-acting” which happens in television. While there was a bias against television in the past (even the great acting teacher Lee Strasberg at one time considered television to be a useless venue for true acting), such is no longer the case thanks to such great shows like Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, True Detective, etc.

I Hate Hamlet is an oxymoronic title for sure. At the end of this production, you have no choice but to actually love Hamlet and, in the words of Shakespeare, “All’s Well that Ends Well.”