Those familiar with my reviews know that I am a sucker for plays that reference the theater. Well, the Bickford Theatre has just opened one of the drollest versions of this genre, I Hate Hamlet, in a sparkling production that will have you laughing out loud!
The central conceit involves Andrew Rally, star of the cancelled television series LA Medicine (on which he played a rookie doctor), who moves to New York to salve his wounds and audition for a role he says he doesn’t want: Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Leasing a Washington Square apartment once occupied by the late, great John Barrymore, he comes face-to-face with the great tragedian’s ghost. It seems that every soul embarking on the role has the right to summon a previous player to help him prepare, and Barrymore can’t leave until he completes the task. The plot is further complicated by Dierdre, the 29-year-old virgin who is Andrew’s uptight girlfriend; Lillian Troy, Andrew’s agent who once had a fling with Barrymore in the very apartment he’s rented; real estate agent Felicia Dantine, a great fan who puts Andrew in touch with the dead actor, and Gary Peter Lefkowitz, Andrew’s Hollywood friend/collaborator who has come to woo him back to Hollywood to star in “Night School,” a series about a teacher with super powers.
Under Eric Hafen’s direction, the action moves along at a steady pace, and the actors turn in notable performances. While Andrew Rein may not resemble a “a multitalented prime time delight” or a man who has girls coming out of the woodwork, he possesses great comedic timing, making up in technique what he lacks in hunkiness. He aptly portrays Rally as a “lightweight” pegged by his friend Gary as "no actor," and watching him warm up using the Gwathmey Method (“Acting to Win”) is hilarious. He looks pretty good in tights, too.
As his nemesis, Rick Delaney (left) convincingly conveys John Barrymore’s arrogance and hammy personality. According to Barrymore, “tights make the star,” and Delaney's legs certainly prove the adage! Rudnick has given him some of the best lines, which he delivers with great élan. I especially loved his recital of Hamlet's speech to the actors as advice to Andrew on opening night. And the theatrical poses he assumes are perfect for the melancholy Dane; he's very adept at swordplay too!
Although they have been written more as caricatures instead of as real people, the lesser characters add to the merriment and provide the other three actors with some very funny lines. Kathleen Huber's Lillian Troy comes complete with German accent and no-nonsense attitude, which she softens in an encounter with Barrymore's ghost after Rally has left for the show. Katrina Ferguson is hysterical as Felicia Dantine, such a fan of Andrew’s that she can even quote a stupid commercial he made with a chipmunk puppet! Her thick New York accent and excitement over his residence in an apartment once home to Barrymore add to the hilarity. As Gary Peter Lefkowitz, Gary Martins is the quintessential “cultural cavity” and “cloud of Malibu ozone,” as Barrymore calls him. Oily, clueless, self-absorbed, he likens Shakespeare to "algebra on stage." Watching him pitch his outlandish idea for a television series with a straight face is almost worth the price of a ticket. And Madeline Orton as Dierdre is appropriately annoying: excited about her boyfriend's upcoming role and new apartment and pretty one-note at avoiding sex with him. The role does not call for much subtlety in its portrayal, but Orton does a fine job uttering the inanities Rudnick has written for her.
Bill Motyka has created a Greenwich Village apartment fit for acting royalty—so medieval looking that Andrew Rally asks, "Is there a moat?"—and Chesapeake Westveer's lighting makes a ghost's appearance believable (ditto the trumpets and smoke that greet Barrymore's entrance). Fran Harrison has done a great job with costumes for this bunch, especially for the women: Felicia wears funky, rather loud duds, Dierdre is attired in Laura Ashley-type clothing perfect for a virginal young woman, and Lillian dresses like a successful, sophisticated theatrical agent. J. Jacqueline Holloway and Ken Sandberg have staged the sword fight scene (above) with verve and energy, not to mention great skill.
Paul Rudnick's I Hate Hamlet may be a bit of theatrical fluff, but it's entertaining fluff nevertheless. The play crosses generational lines: older folks who know who John Barrymore is will enjoy his return while younger audience members will commiserate with a young actor terrified at playing the greatest role in drama. And theater directors who cast callow television actors (even if they attended drama school) should think twice. Celebrity is no substitute for craft. If you attend I Hate Hamlet, you may not like the classic play any better, but you will have a grand time watching talented actors cavort around the stage and meld the Bard's dialogue with Rudnick's snappy lines—to great effect.
I Hate Hamlet will be performed at the Bickford Theatre in the Morris Museum, 6 Normandy Heights Road, Morristown, through May 22. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 PM, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Thursdays and Sundays at 2 PM. There are no performances on Friday, May 13, and Saturday, May 14.
On Sunday, May 15, as part of Day for National Tourism Week, the Bickford Theatre will offer Bu 1/Get 1 Free tickets to I Hate Hamlet. For more information and tickets, call the box office at 973.971.3706 or visit online at www.bickfordtheatre.org.
Photos by Warren Westura