That’s why Andrew Rally (Dustin Charles) of a TV drama known as L.A. Medical cries
out “I Hate Hamlet” when cast in that role by the Paul Rudnick comedy
of the same title. To screw his courage to the sticking point, he needs
to summon up the ghost of a great Hamlet past.
The first good news to report regarding Cortland Repertory Theatre’s current staging of I Hate Hamlet is that the jokes and gag lines have remained fresh after nearly two decades. Not only does I Hate Hamlet wear
well, greatly aided by veteran Tony Capone’s bubbly direction, but
after the third go-round (there have been two previous local
productions), it turns out to be a bit cleverer than on first viewing.
Along with the easily exploitable clash between pop and prestige
culture (“Shakespeare is like algebra on stage.”), the play itself is a
parody of and, to use the groan word, a deconstruction of the
celebrated tragedy. This is not just some critic looking for faces in
clouds. The hints are all buried in the dialogue, if we would just
Quoth the raven, Barrymore: Robert Boardman and Dustin Charles in Cortland Rep’s I Hate Hamlet.
Andrew has arrived in Manhattan with his
hyper-virginal girlfriend Deirdre (Heather Shisler) seeking an
apartment with the help of a brassy real estate agent, Felicia Dantine
(Stephanie Nixdorf). They are joined by Andrew’s German-accented,
chain-smoking agent Lillian Troy (Mary Williams). Felicia offers two
important pieces of information along with closing the deal on the
apartment. First, the very apartment was once occupied by none other
than John Barrymore, one of the most admired American Hamlets of all
time. Second, she dabbles in the occult with success. Lillian confesses
to having had a “fling” with Barrymore in this very room and left a
hairpin behind (think she’ll find it?). The setting of I Hate Hamlet is 1989, so that a woman in her late 60s might have surrendered to the Great Profile (1882-1942) while in her early 20s.
After some acceptable low comedy about
Felicia’s facility with seances, and after the others have left the
stage, John Barrymore (Robert Boardman) does indeed appear, and in
Elizabethan dress. Andrew repeats the title line again, and Barrymore
urges him to buck up, get a grip on himself and the lines, and soar in
the greatest dramatic role in the English language. Outwardly vain and
boastful, Barrymore is revealed to be disarmingly self-mocking and
practical. A demanding role is not just a calling or aspiration. It
requires hard work and application.
Playwright Rudnick cheats on the
convention of Barrymore’s being a ghost. At first he follows convention
of having Andrew “see” Barrymore while Deirdre cannot. But as the
action unfolds, other characters also see Barrymore, such as the
Up until this point the dialogue is
pretty snappy. Experienced Felicia advises timid Deirdre that sex with
the right guy is great. To which Deirdre responds, “And with the wrong
guy?” After a two-beat pause, Felicia coos, “Even better.”
With the entrance of Andrew’s producer
from Hollywood, Gary Peter Lefkowitz (Jared Miller), a self-assured
embodiment of vulgarity, we have a purely comic character who hogs
nearly half the quotable lines in the play. (Larry: “Would you rather
paint or own a Picasso?” Gary: “I’d rather sell one.”) In Gary, Rudnick has an anticipation of his comic alter ego, Libby Gelman-Wexler, the campy, bitchy faux critic for Premiere magazine, who is uninformed but somehow spot on in judgment.
Here’s where the weightier side of I Hate Hamlet comes in. No one alive has seen Barrymore’s Hamlet, and his record on classic films, such as Dinner at Eight (1933) or Twentieth Century (1934),
reveals a hammy buffoon. We have to take his achievement on faith.
That, however, is Rudnick’s point. Barrymore lived off commercial,
undistinguished theater but was able to transform himself when called
upon. Sir Laurence Olivier, who began with lowbrow theater and was
capable of looking highly foolish in public, often cited Barrymore as
Now for the spoofery and deconstruction.
When Deirdre learns that Andrew has been speaking to Barrymore’s ghost,
she says that is just like the beginning of Hamlet where the
prince is guided by the ghost of his father. Andrew, meanwhile, is
vacillating and unresolved, unsure of how to take action or to act at
all. Director Capone and costumer Jimmy Johansmeyer have dressed
Deirdre, garlands in hair, to look like the iconic portrait of Ophelia
by John Everett Millais, not only guileless but a little nuts. The sexy
older woman, Lillian, is Queen Gertrude, and Gary, the purveyor of
humorous conventional wisdom, is Polonius. That leaves real estate
agent Felicia without an antecedent, but five out of six make a case.
Analogies aside, I Hate Hamlet is endless summer fun without a single dull moment.
Robert Boardman initially seems light
for the Barrymore role, a tenor rather than baritone, but he has a
magician’s power at pulling the artist out of the fool. Quite apart
from his capacity to get the best laughs in the right places, his
performance assures this play is more than mere fluff. (Rudnick wrote
recently in The New Yorker that his original Barrymore, now
disgraced Shakespearean Nicol Williamson, was highly erratic during the
short run and actually stabbed the actor playing Andrew during the
Heather Shisler’s Deirdre, all pale
fragility and tenderness, commands in her madness. This has been a
throwaway role in other productions, but here she’s like a non-singing
Donizetti heroine. Syracuse actress Stephanie Nixdorf (formerly
Monsour-Nixdorf) steals scenes as Felicia with a hilarious Barbra
Streisand-Fran Drescher accent she has picked up while living in Boca
Raton, Fla. Jared Miller brings perfect timing to Gary: think of Don
Rickles in sunglasses and a black wig. Mary Williams’ still-fetching
Lillian allows Barrymore his best moment of tenderness. And Dustin
Charles, in one of the most thankless leads of any comedy, is always a
resilient straight man to everyone else’s shtick.
Down deep I Hate Hamlet is a painless little essay on the art of acting. And it uses laughter to help that lesson go down.
This production runs through Saturday, June 27. See Times Table for information.