It’s one thing to hate a beloved Shakespearean work; it’s a major faux pas to say so out loud. Paul Rudnick wrote the book for I Hate Hamlet while he was living in an apartment once occupied by the famed wastrel and stage and screen idol, actor John Barrymore, better known today as Drew Barrymore’s grandfather.
Barrymore’s ghost must have had an influence on the playwright – or perhaps it was one of The Great Profile’s hidden stashes of champagne.
2nd Star Productions’ presentation of I Hate Hamlet, directed by John Wakefield, gives the audience plenty to feast upon before the show begins promptly at its stated time.
The set, designed by 2nd Star founder and WATCH AWARD-winning Jane B. Wingard and constructed by Todd Wingard, is an elegant apartment in a brownstone building located in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village in 1981. It is a gothic marvel, with beveled wood paneling, a massive fireplace mantel used to prop up a modern painting, a mysterious portrait and a baluster-lined railing forming a decorative parapet on the landing leading to an upstairs suite. The parapet, set into a soaring arch, is backlit by a large round stained glass window.
Not your typical Village railcar walkup.
Packing boxes and a life-sized photo cut-out of some guy in a doctor’s outfit indicate someone important – or wealthy – is moving in.
Real estate broker Felicia Dantine (Nicole Mullins) enters, bringing with her a reluctant client, TV actor Andrew Rally (Zak Zeeks), a West coast native. He’s rented the place because he’s been hired to perform the lead role in a Joseph Papp production of Hamlet during the annual free Shakespeare in the Park in Manhattan’s Central Park.
He’s not sure about the apartment. A West Coast native, he’s accustomed to more modern-looking residences. Rally is not sure about his role either. He hates Hamlet and has reservations about appearing onstage before a live audience. Plus, memorizing all those lines!
However, Rally has a beautiful, wealthy, virginal girlfriend, New Yorker Deirdre McDavey (Malarie Novotny) who is passionate about Hamlet. He hopes she’ll show some of that passion to him. Soon.
He played a doctor on a TV series – that’s him on the poster board cut-out. Rally’s subsisting on residuals from a snack food commercial he filmed with a chipmunk puppet. His career is in stasis; the show that made him a star has been cancelled.
As she’s pulling the drape off a full set of a knight’s armor, Dantine informs Rally that Barrymore, known as the greatest portrayer of Hamlet of his generation, once lived in the apartment. That deepens his gloom. He wants to slink off to his hotel room.
Rally’s agent Carole Long (Lillian Troy) swans in. She’s been in the apartment before, decades ago. Long had a brief but memorable fling with Barrymore, though both were married.
Dantine announces she is a psychic and can try to summon the ghost of Barrymore to verify Long’s claim.
The three women eagerly sit down to begin a séance and drag Rally to the table. In mid-trance Dantine asks Rally if he has a question for Barrymore, perhaps some encouragement or suggestions about his upcoming role in Central Park.
“I hate Hamlet!” he blurts out. There is a flash of lightning. Rally briefly sees the ghost of Barrymore.
The séance over, Long and Dantine leave. Rally resumes his attempts to seduce McDavey, now a 29-year old who wants to wait until she is married to give up her virginity.
He thinks the lady doth protest too much.
“Deidre, even Laura Ashley had sex,” an exasperated Rally tells his girlfriend.
After she heads upstairs to sleep, Barrymore enters in Hamlet regalia. I hesitate to say full regalia, because, from the waist down, actor Fred Nelson is wearing tights. His top half, created by Costume Designer Mary Wakefield, is a satin doublet accented with gold chains.
Yep, just when you think no one else is looking at what you’re looking at, the side-splitting men in tights jokes begin.
Helping himself to Rally’s house warming gift, a bottle of champagne, Barrymore asked, “Am I dead, or just incredibly drunk?”
It’s his mission, he tells Rally, to appear to every young actor preparing for the daunting role of Hamlet and who needs help. Rally needs a lot of coaching.
In this role, Fred Nelson is an over-the-top hoot. With his deep, rich voice, grand overblown “theatrical” gestures, and comic facial expressions that can be seen clearly in the back row, Nelson towers, literally and physically, over the other cast members.
He’s a ghost, but he’s no wimpy wisp.
When Rally discovers Barrymore appears to be more than a specter, the old cinematic idol snidely snipes, “I’m a ghost, Andrew, not a special effect.”
Barrymore encourages Rally to take on and own the role of Hamlet.
Rally’s associate, Writer-Producer-Director Gary Peter Lefkowicz (Daniel Douek) arrives, swathed in an aura of Hollywood clichés, glamor and deal-making. He’s pitching a pilot and wants Rally as its star. He ultimately ups the payout for Rally’s participation to $3 million.
What he really wants is his cut of the money.
A comic competitor to Nelson, Douek’s mangled accent and timing are as sharp as Nelson’s rapier sword.
Rally has to decide between easy L.A. money or the cache of performing before free ticket holders in mosquito-plagued Central Park.
Barrymore spends the final minutes of Act One coaching Rally, not only in acting, but in how to love and make love. There is a must-see mock swordfight – a bravura combination of Errol Flynn and Indiana Jones.
As the play progresses, it becomes apparent that other people can see, hear – and feel – the ghost. And, sometimes fall under his seductive spell. They, too, discover he’s not a special effect – but is very effective.
Though Fred Nelson is clearly the king, the half dozen cast members perform beautifully as an ensemble.
Zak Zeeks started off a little rough, but by the middle of Act One was showing more ease with the role. By Act Two, when he appeared in his Hamlet garb – and tights – Zeeks was a delight to watch. He’s now raring to portray Hamlet!
Novotny, as the desirable Deirdre makes being an air-head a virtue. “I’m not wealthy, my parents are,” she giggles. Later on, she explains her difficulties in staying in character as one of the doomed Ophelia’s servants.
It’s an eye-rolling moment. One of hundreds throughout this haunting, hysterically howling production.
The laugh riot ending – and I’m not giving it away – is Barrymore’s final lesson.
To paraphrase Shakespeare: Get thee to this show!
Running Time: two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.
I Hate Hamlet plays through February 22, 2015 at 2nd Star Productions performing at Bowie Playhouse – 16500 White Marsh Park Drive, in Bowie, MD. For tickets, call (410) 757-5700 or (301) 832-4819, or purchase them online.
Meet the Cast of ‘I Hate Hamlet’ at 2nd Star Productions: Part 2: Zak Zeeks.
Meet the Cast of ‘I Hate Hamlet’ at 2nd Star Productions: Part 3: Carole Long.
Meet the Cast of ‘I Hate Hamlet’ at 2nd Star Productions: Part 4: Malarie Novotny.