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Remember that instantly evaporating pop hit from the early Eighties, “Video Killed the Radio Star”? If ever there were a comparable anthem for the relationship of the small screen to the stage, it would be Paul Rudnick's I Hate Hamlet.
The backstage comedy that hit Broadway in 1991 pits art against artifice, pairing Andrew (Mark Whittington), a California actor whose series, L.A. Medical, has just been canceled, with the flamboyant, carousing ghost of John Barrymore (Wesley Stevens). Andrew has agreed to take on the most daunting male role in theater, Hamlet, for Joseph Papp's prestigious Shakespeare in the Park series. Coincidentally he happens to set up house in a medieval-looking dwelling in Greenwich Village once inhabited by John Barrymore -- famous for his Hamlet. The coincidence is not overdone, thanks to the brassy Long Island broker Felicia (Kelly Briscoe) who pushes the Hamlet connection to sell Andrew the place.
Besides the conflict of a second-rate TV actor trying to play one of the most challenging roles in theater and the subplot of Andrew's attempt to undo his girlfriend, the Opheliaesque maiden and 29-year-old virgin Deirdre (Kim Ostrenko), the dramatic energy of this Broward Stage Door Theatre production is propelled by volleying the vices and virtues of selling out. Andrew reminisces about the fame of having your face in every check-out line, “right there by the gum.” Barrymore thunders a response: “There is fame and there is glory -- do you appreciate the difference?” Andrew's fast-talking Tinseltown buddy Gary throws in his two cents: “What's an actor? Just some English guy that can't get a series.”
Gary (Michael McKeever) has shown up to lure Andrew back to Hollywood. He has landed Andrew the starring role in the pilot for a television series called Night School, on which Andrew will play a sensitive teacher in an inner-city school whose limited supernatural powers come out at night. He can fly but only ten feet above the ground -- “Just to keep it real, man,” Gary explains. While not an attempt to proselytize couch potatoes into patrons of the arts, I Hate Hamletis a comedy with ethical underpinnings. It's obvious which side Rudnick takes.
Although at times a bit sketchy, the script is funny and occasionally smart. This troupe has the right stuff to make it work but gets off to a slow start. The actors could use a little more guidance from director Dan Kelley in relating to one another. At first the repressed and ready-to-boil-over passion between Deirdre and Andrew is dubious. We believe Andrew is frustrated -- along the lines of Happy Days' Richie Cunningham, because he has a zit on his chin and a date with two girls on the same night. Granted Andrew is not supposed to be a psychological enigma like Hamlet or an emotional giant like Barrymore, but comedy must be more than the sum of one-liners and witty comebacks to engage the audience.
Unfortunately Whittington mirrors his protagonist. He doesn't seem to fall into the role until later in the play. In the first act, Andrew's character lacks verity. We see his situation (a mediocre TV actor taking on the daunting role of Hamlet) and we see the profile of his character (Andrew is basically pragmatic). He is sarcastic and sufficiently self-loathing. But in most of Act One, that's what we get: a profile, a character in sketch. Andrew is the idea someone -- the director or actor or playwright -- had for the character, but he is not yet Mark Whittington's Andrew.
This sketchiness can be attributed partly to the script and Rudnick's emphasis on quick retorts. When Deirdre asks what sex is like with the right man, Felicia answers, “Great.” When Deirdre worries, “But what about with the wrong man?” Felicia smiles and says, “Even better.” Barrymore, defending against criticism that his acting style is overdone, proclaims, “I don't overact. I simply possess the passion of ten men.” But this same snappy virtue is a weakness in the play overall, as there is no comic device to drive the dramatic development.
A prime example of this weakness is Lillian (Harriet Oser), Andrew's old-school agent who supposedly had a one-night stand with Barrymore back in the day. Her German accent and aristocratic ballet mistress-turned-battle-ax persona are very believable, but the character seems flat in her relationship with Andrew and, less so but still, in the scene with Barrymore. Because of Lillian's relationships with Andrew and Barrymore, we expect her character to develop, but it doesn't really. This is partly because she is given more one-liners than anyone else in the play. She breezes in, takes a drag of her Gaulois cigarette, says something catty through clenched teeth, and exits. She finds a hairpin left on the mantel during a night of carousing with Barrymore and exits. Even in the scene with Barrymore, she falls too quickly into nostalgia, then disappointment, and then an even sweeter nostalgia, dancing with Barrymore as the lights fade. Oser doesn't hold back enough and she doesn't dole out her emotion selectively enough for someone as tenacious as Lillian, whom Gary jokingly refers to as “a war criminal.”
Kim Ostrenko portrays Deirdre with a gawky, verging-on-homely charisma reminiscent of Shelley Duvall. She does a double take when she sees Andrew's well-endowed Hamlet in his tights, and she becomes flushed and flustered. Her humor is frank (she agrees with Andrew that his performance was horrible) and at times self-effacing (“Why don't I just get some help?” she asks, referring to her self-imposed virginity). As we saw recently in Praying with the Enemy, Ostrenko has a talent for comedy that moves the laughter from the heart to the brain and back again.
Luckily Wesley Stevens has performed Shakespeare, and it shows. He is given the meatier lines of the play and is confident in his role. From the get-go he makes a beeline to the bar, true to the character of Barrymore, an infamous drunk and prankster. The role seems to demand a little more physicality than Stevens gives, though. After all, he is playing one of the most flamboyant and boisterous actors of the Twentieth Century. But his arrogance and elegance are on the money. He also plays the gentler side of Barrymore as mentor well when sympathizing with Andrew's opening-night terror and, finally, when Andrew returns to report his flailing performance.
In the second half, the actors seem more sure of themselves. Andrew's relationships with Barrymore and Deirdre are more energetic. Also, the layering of additional text from Hamletwith a deepening of Andrew's relationship with Barrymore helps. Thematically speaking their dialogue never really transcends the back and forth of Andrew's “I'm not worthy” and Barrymore's “Make thyself worthy,” but the energy picks up between the two actors, intensifying their interactions. The same happens with Deirdre. When she finally acknowledges Andrews's horrible performance yet expresses her love for him eloquently and honestly, the audience can tell that she has worked through a crisis to reach some new understanding.
This is one of Whittington's finest moments. He narrates Andrew's floundering performance in such a straightforward way it has the humor of a drowning man laughing. He describes seeing a teenage boy in the audience squirming in his seat with boredom. Through this observation he reaches a point of freedom, realizes he is a lousy Hamlet, and actually delivers a moving “To be or not to be” soliloquy. For one moment he gains the awe of the teenage boy and the rest of the audience, and he decides that this moment is worth more than a six-figure Hollywood contract. Epiphanies such as this strike a real emotional chord, a nice complement to the lighthearted, sometimes bawdy humor. The guy's seen a ghost after all.