The Unbearable Bardness of Being

I Hate Hamlet plays for laughs on the vices and virtues of selling out

Remember that instantly evaporating pop hit from the early '80s, "Video Killed the Radio Star"? If ever there were a comparable anthem for the relationship of the small screen to the stage, it would be Paul Rudnick's I Hate Hamlet.

The backstage comedy that hit Broadway in 1991 pits art against artifice, pairing Andrew (Mark Whittington), a California actor whose series, L.A. Medical, has just been canceled, with the flamboyant, carousing ghost of John Barrymore (Wesley Stevens). Andrew has agreed to take on the most daunting male role in theater, Hamlet, for Joseph Papp's prestigious Shakespeare in the Park series. Coincidentally he happens to set up house in a medieval-looking dwelling in Greenwich Village once inhabited by John Barrymore -- famous for his Hamlet. The coincidence is not overdone, thanks to the brassy Long Island broker Felicia (Kelly Briscoe), who pushes the Hamlet connection to sell Andrew the place.

Besides the conflict of a second-rate TV actor trying to play one of the most challenging roles in theater and the subplot of Andrew's attempt to undo his girlfriend, the Opheliaesque maiden and 29-year-old virgin Deirdre (Kim Ostrenko), the dramatic energy of this Broward Stage Door Theatre production is propelled by volleying the vices and virtues of selling out. Andrew reminisces about the fame of having his face in every checkout line, "right there by the gum." Barrymore thunders a response: "There is fame and there is glory -- do you appreciate the difference?" Andrew's fast-talking Tinseltown buddy Gary throws in his two cents: "What's an actor? Just some English guy that can't get a series."

The ghost of Hamlets past: Barrymore (Wesley Stevens, left) won't give up his haunt to Andrew (Mark Whittington)
The ghost of Hamlets past: Barrymore (Wesley Stevens, left) won't give up his haunt to Andrew (Mark Whittington)

Gary (Michael McKeever) has shown up to lure Andrew back to Hollywood. He has landed Andrew the starring role in the pilot for a television series called Night School, in which Andrew will play a sensitive teacher in an inner-city school whose limited supernatural powers come out at night. He can fly, but only ten feet above the ground -- "Just to keep it real, man," Gary explains. While not an attempt to proselytize couch potatoes into patrons of the arts, I Hate Hamletis a comedy with ethical underpinnings. It's obvious which side Rudnick takes.

Although at times a bit sketchy, the script is funny and occasionally smart. This troupe has the right stuff to make it work but gets off to a slow start. The actors could use a little more guidance from director Dan Kelley in relating to one another. At first the repressed and ready-to-boil-over passion between Deirdre and Andrew is dubious. We believe Andrew is frustrated -- along the lines of Happy Days' Richie Cunningham, because he has a zit on his chin and a date with two girls on the same night. Granted Andrew is not supposed to be a psychological enigma like Hamlet or an emotional giant like Barrymore, but comedy must be more than the sum of one-liners and witty comebacks to engage the audience.

Unfortunately Whittington mirrors his protagonist. He doesn't seem to fall into the role until later in the play. In the first act, Andrew's character lacks verity. We see his situation (a mediocre TV actor taking on the daunting role of Hamlet), and we see the profile of his character (Andrew is basically pragmatic). He is sarcastic and sufficiently self-loathing. But in most of Act One, that's what we get: a profile, a character in sketch. Andrew is the idea someone -- the director or actor or playwright -- had for the character, but he is not yet Mark Whittington's Andrew.

This sketchiness can be attributed partly to the script and Rudnick's emphasis on one-liners. When Deirdre asks what sex is like with the right man, Felicia answers, "Great." When Deirdre worries, "But what about with the wrong man?" Felicia smiles and says, "Even better." Barrymore, defending against criticism that his acting style is overdone, proclaims, "I don't overact. I simply possess the passion of ten men." But this same snappy virtue is a weakness in the play overall, as there is no comic device to drive the dramatic development.

A prime example of this weakness is Lillian (Harriet Oser), Andrew's old-school agent who supposedly had a one-night stand with Barrymore back in the day. Her German accent and aristocratic ballet mistress­turned­battle-ax persona are very believable but the character seems flat in her relationship with Andrew and, less so but still, in the scene with Barrymore. Because of Lillian's relationships with Andrew and Barrymore, we expect her character to develop, but it doesn't really, partly because she is given more one-liners than anyone else in the play. She breezes in, takes a drag of her Gaulois cigarette, says something catty through clenched teeth, and exits. She finds a hairpin that she left on the mantel during a night of carousing with Barrymore and exits. Even in the scene with Barrymore, she falls too quickly into nostalgia, then disappointment, and then an even sweeter nostalgia, dancing with Barrymore as the lights fade. Oser doesn't hold back enough, nor does she dole out her emotion selectively enough for someone as tenacious as Lillian, whom Gary jokingly refers to as "a war criminal."

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