I could be in L.A. right now making a fortune -- wearing pants!" quips Andrew Rally, the stocking-clad hero of I Hate Hamlet. In Paul Rudnick's comedy, recently presented by the Skyfire Theatre in Covington, Andrew (played by Lee Jeansonne) has landed in New York City fresh from the cancellation of his television series, L.A. Medical. As the play opens, he has just arrived at his new apartment, which was once inhabited by the legendary actor John Barrymore. (Rudnick himself actually lived for a time in Barrymore's apartment in Greenwich Village, thus his idea for the play.) Andrew is there begrudgingly to play the title role in a production of Hamlet in Central Park. His career goals tend more towards having his face "at every supermarket checkout -- right next to the gum!"
Andrew's girlfriend, Deirdre (Christie Chopin), is not of the same mind. In a characteristic gush, she describes Hamlet dreamily as, "About how awful life is and everything gets betrayed and Hamlet tries to make it better and he dies!" Andrew's agent Lillian, a fur-clad woman with a German accent (played with the requisite sly sophistication by Deborah Marcelle) is likewise enthusiastic about the role and Andrew's new pad -- she had an indiscretion with Barrymore years ago in that very apartment. In order that Lillian and Barrymore be reunited and Andrew receive some acting advice, Andrew's real estate agent Felicia (Lori Molinary), and the other two women hold a seance to conjure Barrymore from the beyond. But it is Andrew who succeeds in summoning the actor, by uttering with great conviction the title of the play.
After making his presence felt by blowing out candles, Barrymore's ghost (George J. Sanchez, in the show's strongest performance) appears in full force, dressed as the melancholy Dane, black tights and all. His mission is to make sure Andrew plays Hamlet. He won't leave until his young liege makes his Shakespearean debut. To convince Andrew to accept the part, Barrymore uses two arguments. The main one is the value of art over commerce, and much of the play explores that belabored issue, albeit often to good comic effect.
To Rudnick's credit, even as he decries the soullessness of Hollywood, he pokes fun at theater, including stage actors' capacity for grandiosity. Barrymore says, "I do not overact -- I simply possess the emotional resources of 10 men." Andrew's attraction to Hollywood is encouraged by the arrival of his friend Gary Peter Lefkowitz (David M. Manning Jr.), an L.A. writer-director-producer who wants Andrew to accept a lucrative new TV series. Lefkowitz offers such admonitions as, "You don't do art, you buy it." Barrymore counters that if Andrew goes back to Hollywood, he may acquire "all the attributes of a best-selling detergent."
Even in jest, Rudnick takes the theater vs. Hollywood dichotomy a little far. Around the same time he penned this script, Rudnick received his first screenplay credit, for Addams Family Values; his most recent is this summer's The Stepford Wives. Is one to believe that Rudnick has sold out and now holds no hope of artistry, as his play seems to suggest? As he himself proves, this either/or attitude -- stage or screen -- that the play promotes even in its more serious moments simply doesn't hold. Actors, writers and directors needn't choose (nor can they afford to) between art and commerce, and the play's premise that you can't have it both ways wears thin.
In persuading Andrew, Barrymore's other argument involves Deirdre. It turns out she is a 29-year-old virgin who won't have sex with Andrew until she's convinced he's The One. Barrymore advises Andrew that "Shakespeare is the most potent aphrodisiac." Indeed, Deirdre gets hot and bothered when Andrew, with coaching from Barrymore, delivers Hamlet's "Get thee to a nunnery" speech. Andrew goes through with the role for the artistic challenge, but the hope that his girlfriend might finally give it up doesn't hurt.
Giving Andrew last-minute tips, George Sanchez as Barrymore offers a nice rendition of Hamlet's speech to the players. Skyfire's company could better heed that monologue's advice to "not saw the air." As a group, they err, as Barrymore did, on the side of hammi-ness, particularly in the arm gesture department. Still, to the credit of director David Jacobs, the cast's style is consistent, and with this script, better to ham it up than underplay it. Rudnick himself wrote (as quoted in the program), "May the Barrymore panache rule all productions." In this mode, Molinary as the real estate agent conducts an inspired seance, and Chopin is endearingly goofy and over-the-top as Deirdre. The audience, comprised mostly of couples ranging in age from around 17 to 70-something, certainly seemed entertained. If Barrymore is right about Shakespeare's amorous effect, the play may have been just the start of an enjoyable evening.
- Director David Jacobs got an energetic and enthusiastic performance out of his ensemble for Skyfire's recent production of I Hate Hamlet.