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Theater Review: 'I Hate Hamlet'

Putting the ham in Hamlet.

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What dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil? Excellent question. According to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the unpleasant possibilities of the afterlife prevent many of the living from taking an early checkout. The dead don’t have this problem. Case in point: John Barrymore (Philip Alexander), whose ghost is prominently featured in “I Hate Hamlet,” Paul Rudnick’s 1991 hit, now playing at The Players. Barrymore knows exactly what dreams may come …

The shade of the legendary actor, womanizer and heavy drinker is stuck in his former apartment in Greenwich Village until he imparts the secret of playing Hamlet to Andy Rally (Daniel Pelissier), a recently unemployed soap opera star who’s having second thoughts about playing the melancholy Dane in a “Shakespeare in the Park” production. To make matters worse?

Rally hates Hamlet.

To break the curse, Barrymore verbally fences with the reluctant actor. When that doesn’t work, he literally fences. When this also fails, Barrymore points out that playing Hamlet will surely win the heart of Deirdre (Kaitlynn Barrett), Rally’s improbably virginal girlfriend who has a minor role in the production. Gary (Baron Garriott), Rally’s smarmy L.A. producer, wants him to dump the Bard and take the lead role in a fatuous new TV series about a teacher with superpowers. Lillian (Melliss Swenson), Rally’s chain-smoking agent, wants Rally to put on his tights and go for it. (She had a close encounter with Barrymore when he was still in the flesh.) Felicia (Carolyn Zaput), Rally’s real estate agent, agrees; she started the séance that summoned Barrymore in the first place. (In this case, the louche, past-his-prime Barrymore seeking a sort of redemption.)

Garry Allan Breul delivers this farrago with a sense of heart — and full knowledge of the goofy artifice of Rudnick’s mad dream. The characters are caricatures, duh. But you can tell the actors are having a blast playing them. Rally and Barrymore are the antipodal archetypes of Hollywood superficiality and old-school theatrical bombast. They’re also broadly drawn. And that’s also part of the fun.

Rally and Barrymore’s comic collision resembles a cross between “Your Show of Shows” and “The Addams Family.” Not coincidentally, Rudnick was a script doctor on Barry Sonnenfeld’s first Addams Family flick and the screenwriter of the second. In another non-coincidence, Rudnick actually lived in Barrymore’s former apartment for a time. Evidently he doesn’t hate Hamlet. Whether he met Barrymore’s ghost is an open question.

So, does Rally do the show or not?

Ah. Much like the Prince of Denmark, Rally can’t make up his mind. (To be Hamlet, or not to be …) But — after much fumfawing and dithering — he finally decides to be the Hamlet he was born to be. Thus, the play goes on and Rally’s in it. And here, Rudnick’s script goes a little flat. After all that supernatural silliness, the playwright turns realistic all of a sudden. Rally goes through with the performance, yes. But, except for one shining moment, Rally’s Dane is a dud. Even so, he rejects the tube and embraces a low-paid life on stage. Hooray, OK, but it’s hardly a triumph — and I wanted a triumph. “Screw that, I’m going back to TV” would also have been funnier.

But that’s a muttered aside. The play’s the thing, not the ending. And Barrymore’s tutelage is the comic heart of the play. (If you’re planning on skipping acting school, don’t.) His advice boils down to stealing Hamlet’s “trippingly on the tongue” speech. That, and mugging, bellowing and bowing unctuously to the audience and wearing well-stuffed tights. I’faith, he puts the “ham” in Hamlet.

Along with the silliness, you can find serious subtext here if you dig for it — such diverse matters of import as the meaning of acting, the essence of stage fright, the madness of the Method, and the clash between the Hollywood and New York styles of acting. You might also find Yorick’s skull, but don’t bother. Forget the subtext, and stick with the silliness.

Have a good laugh, and there’s an end on’t.


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