By Geary Danihy
It started with Richard Burbage, for whom Shakespeare wrote the role of Hamlet, followed by David Garrick, then Sarah Siddons (the first women to play the role). There’s been Edmund Kean, Edwin Booth, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and John Barrymore -- and then, well, you name them (even Mel Gibson). Now you can add Andrew Rally to the list.
Who? You know, the guy who played that sexy doctor on that TV series. Well, he’s come East and, lo and behold, he’s been offered the role of Hamlet for a Shakespeare in the Park production, and he’s terrified. Such is the opening premise of I Hate Hamlet, an often enjoyable piece of theatrical fluff that recently opened at Playhouse on Park. Rally (Dan Whelton) is looking for a place to live, and real estate agent Felicia Dantine (Julia Hochner) has sold him into renting an apartment once owned by none other than John Barrymore (Ezra Barnes). He’s not thrilled -- after all, Rally’s from California and likes things modern.
However, that this was once Barrymore’s abode thrills Rally’s 29-year-old virginal girlfriend, Deirdre McDavey (Susan Slotoroff), who’s waiting for the perfect man to come along (perhaps King Arthur). It also delights Rally’s agent, Lillian Troy (Ruth Neaveill), who has romantic ties to the apartment and the now deceased Barrymore. Yet Rally’s decision to play the Prince of Denmark not only frightens him, it stuns his La-La-Land friend Gary Lefkowitz (David Lanson), who has just worked a deal for a new TV series that will give Rally financial security.
But wait, Felicia is not only a real estate agent, she’s also a psychic, and as Rally ponders whether he should stay in the apartment and take the role, she decides a seance is in order to see if connection can be made with Barrymore’s ghost (after all, she talks to her long-dead mother on a regular basis). A candle is lit, hands are joined around a table, and “puff,” Barrymore appears. He has been given a charge: to guide the next great actor to play the role of Hamlet and cannot leave until this is accomplished.
What follows throughout the rest of the first act and for most of the second act is interaction between the TV actor and the great stage actor, who also happened to be a womanizer and an alcoholic. You buy the premise, you (by and large) by the play.
Under the direction of Vince Tyler, this production is something of a rollercoaster, for the cast (at least on opening night), just didn’t seem to be on the same page in terms of what the play is about. Yes, there are the questions: will Rally play Hamlet and will he succeed, and will he finally get to sleep with Felicia? These are secondary to evocation of the characters, for this is a character-driven play. And so, what of the characters as created by the actors?
The good stuff first. Whenever Lanson is on stage he all but steals the show. As the voice of cynical reality, he chides, he kvetches, and he gets to deliver some of the best lines in the play. His Gary is fully realized and multi-faceted, and he knows how to deliver a punch-line.
Then there’s Barnes as Barrymore. Look up “aplomb” in an on-line dictionary and you could easily see a video of his performance. His Barrymore is suave, urbane, world-weary and totally egocentric. Playwright Paul Rudnick gives this character several extended monologues, and Barnes makes the most of them, especially his final words of wisdom to Rally before Hamlet’s opening night. It’s a wonderfully studied performance, mainly because it’s difficult to play a ham without hamming it up, but Barnes succeeds because he’s able to convey total character sincerity without taking himself seriously.
You get the feeling that Lanson and Barnes knew whom they were playing from the get-go, and whatever direction Tyler provided was just icing on the cake.
We then turn to the other characters, and without having been privy to any table-talks or rehearsals, one can only ascribe the lack of success in realization to Tyler’s direction, or perhaps what the playwright has given them to work with. This is most obvious in Slotoroff’s take on the virginal Deirdre. Tyler has directed her, or allowed her, to skip around the stage like a bunny on LSD. Perhaps he was seeking for a visual manifestation of sexual frustration. She enters gushing and basically plays that one note throughout the entire performance. Why Rally clings to this manic package of female repression remains to be seen -- after all, he’s a TV semi-star.
Whelton plays a different note, for he essentially enters shouting and keeps the decibel level high for most of the evening. Thus, as the ghost appears or his fear of tackling the role of Hamlet rises the actor has no place to go. He’s already climbed the mountain. His continued high-decibel consternation is equal to that he initially showed when confronted by the ancient apartment early in the first act.
Staying with the one-note idea, Hochner has been allowed to channel Marisa Tomei (think Mona Lisa Vito in My Cousin Vinny) in her interpretation of the Big Apple real estate agent. She does it well, but it goes nowhere, and eventually becomes just a tad grating.
Fortunately, there’s a bit of nuance to Neaveill’s Lillian – her second-act “Ah yes I remember it well” scene with Barnes is quite touching. However, there’s a slight problem with her accent, which seems to shift from British (initially) to German (which it is supposed to be) and then back again.
There’s a lot of movement in this production -- if for no other reason than an extended swordfight takes up much of the close of the first act. However, a lot of the blocking seems motivated by an intent to keep things visually balanced, as if Tycer is moving chess pieces about the board: “Okay, when he goes here, you go there,” and many of the crosses (often unmotivated) are made as other actors are delivering lines -- audience members’ ears attend to the words but their eyes are inevitably drawn to the motion.
There are many moments when I Hate Hamlet comes alive -- mainly when Barnes and Lanson are allowed to do their thing. In fact, Lanson’s first extended scene drew applause upon his exit, as well it should have, for he brought life and energy to the stage. And then there are moments when the production just seems to be going through the motions.
Now in its seventh season, Playhouse on Park has proven over and over again that it can stage engaging, often mesmerizing productions (the recent The Chosen is a case in point). Unfortunately, I Hate Hamlet is not one of them. Often entertaining, this semi-farce comes off as less than the sum of its parts.
I Hate Hamlet runs through March 13. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to www.playhouseonpark.org