I Hate Hamlet, by Paul Rudnick. Directed by Carl Andress. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
David Lansbury, Deirdre McDavey, Felicia Dantine; photo: Mairi McCormick
"It rained on Coriolanus. It didn't help. They kept going!"
"I Hate Hamlet" is a comedy by Paul Rudnick, currently available on stage at the Dorset Theatre Festival in Vermont, about a young television star who comes to New York City to take an acting job on stage in Central Park playing the lead role in Shakespeare's "Hamlet." Ill-equipped for the job he finds himself being coached in the part by its greatest American exponent, John Barrymore, an actor who has been dead for over fifty years. This is one of those comedies where the humor is constant and gentle, the laughs are numerous but never raucous and the play is delicately indelicate but nowhere near imprudent. Under two hours in length (with the intermission) the show is a loving reminder of what theater is all about and why it should matter to its players and its audiences. You come away from the show having had a lovely time with no regrets but you realize that you will forget about it in a while and that will be all right too. Before you do forget it, recommend it to a friend just as I am doing now.
Back in 1991 the show had a modest run on Broadway of less than one hundred performances. It starred Evan Handler, Nicole Williamson, Celeste Holm, Adam Arkin, Caroline Aaron and Jane Adams. Arkin received a Tony nomination for the role of Gary Peter Lefkowitz. Since then the play has been revived in summer theaters and dinner theaters around the country. While it will never be a major contendor for "great American play" it will undoubtedly survive the theatre wars for placement in a season. One set (beautifully designed here by Kevin Judge), six characters (3 men, 3 women), a few minor special effects that require no effects man (they are done with the lights designed by Michael Giannitti very nicely for this production), and some other technical tidbits, along with appropriate costumes (this production has some stunning outfits by Gregory Gale) are all this show requires for success.
The setting is John Barrymore's old apartment (still furnished by him it seems) done over, with toys that play at the touch of a button. Lillian Troy (played by Carole Montferdini), Andrew Rally's agent, remembers a tryst in this place years earlier. She helps lay the groundwork for what follows through her championing the young actor's taking a lease on the place. She is also pushing him into the live theater he craves but hopes to avoid.
J. D. Taylor plays TV star Andrew Rally with all of the gentleness available to him. He reacts quickly, loses his composure easily and plays to the ghostly figure of Barrymore with a simple honesty that leaves us wondering about the actors who play Ebenezer Scrooge and their tendency in the early stages of that Dickens' story to overplay his reality. Rally falls easily into the ghostly thrall, even fighting a beautifully choreographed duel with Barrymore. Taylor's ease with the scenes of confrontation (with Barrymore, with his girlfriend, with his producer) almost speak of a drugged sensibility, but Rudnick's words would require a completely straight, sane man to say them convincingly and Taylor does do that well. His performance is loose and he never feels like quite the television actor/star that he is purported to be, but his softness in his relationships is a nice change from the easier hard image we have so often seen in shows like "Entourage." This is a likeable guy played by someone who seems to be a likeable guy. I liked that.
Real estate agent Felicia Dantine who is also a medium (trances, don't you know) is played with gusto and a fine sense of the ridiculous by Annie Meisels. Her performance is a period piece all in itself and she performs that piece of this puzzle play with comic flair. As her direct opposite, Deirdre McDavey, Haley Bond plays a rich girl with no money of her own, a virgin with nothing to lose, an actress who cannot take on a role. She is sweet and funny and just a bit pathetic as Bond plays her. You want to like her but she is hard to take sometimes and you wonder instead why Rally doesn't just tell her to go away. But she is sweet and you like her, so you understand.
Benjamin Pelteson plays Gary Lefkowitz, a wheeler-dealer from the "coast" who, in almost a Mephistophelean way, tries to lure Andrew Rally away from his destiny for a series with a 24 week guarantee, a lot of money, and a collection of broken dreams on the side that can be reconstituted at will. Pelteson is just good enough in the role to make us appreciate his offers. But like the women above, there is a lack of sincere connection here in the byplay between Pelteson and Taylor.
David Lansbury portrays an aging, once famous star. He does it handily considering the fact that he neither looks nor sounds like John Barrymore. If Barrymore himself wasn't a necessary character I would say that Lansbury gives one of the best performances of the season. He is very devoted to Barrymore's unwilling and unworthy disciple (Rally) while at the same time it is clear that his realization of John Barrymore is equally lacking in credibility. He wears a semblance of the man's 1922 Hamlet costume. He almost sports the proper moustache. But there, in those two elements, the impression of Barrymore ends and the play suffers a bit for this if - and this is a big if - you remember that amazing 20th century actor. Should you have no idea who I'm talking about you will definitely like this play from top to bottom.
Carole Monfredini gives the finest performance of the night as Lillian Troy, Rally's agent who once had a fling with Barrymore. Her performance includes remembrances, current goals and a fantasy recreation of affairs of the past. She has the best costumes including a lace evening gown and she wears them with style and magnificence. Playing an older woman she manages to bring the necessary glamor to the part and she makes work what shouldn't work. In other words, she is divine.
Director Carl Andress has provided an excellent show on the Dorset stage with the exception of wringing a true replica performance out of his Barrymore. Without that the play is funny but has a distorted importance for Barrymore circles the central figure like an animal with a prey and the peculiar intensity that both John and Lionel Barrymore had is nearly legendary. It is the one element needed that is missing from this offering.
This amusing outing is fun but is not great. It is a charming closer to the Dorset season which has been grand all summer long and this show won't fail an audience that doesn't know its "Model" character. I wish I could have divorced myself from the actor whose work I know and admire. In this case I couldn't because he is on stage, in view, vocally and physically present, for so much of the time. But everyone is good at what they can do and the show is funny. That's the best part of it.
J.D. Taylor as Andrew Rally; photo: Mairi McCormick
David Lansbury as John Barrymore; photo: Mairi McCormick
Carole Monfredini; photo: Mairi McCormick
I Hate Hamlet plays through September 5 at the Dorset Playhouse, 104 Cheney Road, Dorset, Vermont. For tickets and information call the box office at 802-867-2223 or go on line at www.dorsettheatrefestival.org.