By Eric Marchese | NB Indy Special
Seeing how show biz people behave when not in front of an audience can be a hoot. Paul Rudnick’s “I Hate Hamlet” positions us for laughs at both theater and television, two modes of performance where the actors are center stage – so it stands to reason that it should be fun.
As we see in the new production from the Newport Theater Arts Center, directed by Floyd Harden, the 1991 comically contrasts the mindset, personality and work ethic of television actor Andrew Rally. (Dave Rodriguez) with the features of legendary stage star John Barrymore (Eldon Callaway). and a matinee idol of the silent film era.
The plot of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy is launched by the appearance of the ghost of the Danish prince’s murdered father, which shows Rudnick’s skill in using an apparition – that of Barrymore – as the starting point for his story.
In the best tradition of sitcoms, the way Barrymore’s spirit enters Andy’s life is a trick. While trying his hand at Shakespeare in the Park, his first taste of New York theater, the Los Angeles actor needs an apartment, so real estate agent Felicia (Victoria Leigh Serra) convinces him to rent the loft once occupied by Barrymore himself.
As fate would have it, the young actor is about to tackle the monumental role of Hamlet, a character immortalized on stage by Barrymore in the early 1920s. Thus, Rudnick sets in motion a dynamic in which a frightened television actor by live theater and terrified of the historical burden of playing Hamlet, is encouraged, prodded and prodded by one of the greatest Hamlets of all time (albeit his ghost).
A hilarious and bad comedian, Andrew is riddled with doubts, repeatedly repeating “I’m not an actor” and “I’m not Barrymore”. Indeed, watching the character undergo an absurd ritual of methodical acting techniques just to prepare to recite the “To be or not to be” speech is also painfully comical for us – and for the spirit of “The Great Profile” ( Barrymore’s nickname).
Playwright Rudnick deftly serves up the well-justified ridicule of those who worship at the altar of the boob tube, deftly implying that TV actors are awful and nowhere near good or talented enough to be able to handle the demands of live theater – and so, because of this, they are unworthy of being part of this exalted art form.
Yet the script fails to clearly define main character Andrew or provide us with a clearly visible character arc for him. At times, Andrew is respectful of television and contemptuous of theater, while at others he praises theater and despises television.
Among other flaws, the script doesn’t even plausibly attribute the presence of Barrymore’s spirit to an impromptu seance. Plus, we see the ghost long before Felicia tries to summon Barrymore – just one example of the script failing to capitalize on potentially comedy-laden storylines.
Because it’s safe to say playwright Rudnick is incapable of turning his situation-driven story into comedic gold, NTAC’s production is beyond reproach. Director Harden has a decent cast thwarted almost at every turn by the script.
Although Rodriguez misses the mark in portraying Andrew’s comedic desperation, he captures Andrew’s hilarious ignorance. One example is how he questions Barrymore’s use of Elizabethan English (standard in Shakespeare’s day), saying the actor regularly “exaggerates” and resorts to “turning it up” with style. too “big” and too “exaggerated”.
On the other hand, Callaway is simply superb. He brilliantly avoids overacting in bringing this legendary actor’s role to life and, just as deftly, makes sure we don’t see Barrymore overacting or putting it too thick. He makes trying out Barrymore effortless, exactly what anyone in the role needs.
What’s more, Callaway shows us that even though Barrymore defends his excessive drinking, the star was filled with self-loathing not only for becoming lush, but for abandoning the scene in favor of Hollywood.
Andrew and Barrymore aside, supporting characters aren’t so much characters as collections of traits. Deirdre (Kayla Agnew) is a beachhead with even less acting talent than her boyfriend Andrew. Lillian (Mary Price Moore) is a chain-smoking German actress who had an affair decades ago with Barrymore. Felicia (Serra) is a silly talker, and Andrew’s pal, Hollywood actor Gary (Cody Aaron Hanify) is a laughing buffoon.
By surrounding Andrew with goofy lightweights, Rudnick paints Andrew as the only sane person in history. We have to wonder why the playwright didn’t make these characters comically quirky but more grounded in reality, which would have opened up more comedic possibilities.
Barrymore and Andrew aside, the most spectacular role is that of Gary, a dimwitted pleb made comically obnoxious by Hanify. Gary has never heard of Barrymore and has no idea of his legendary status.
For her part, Deirdre d’Agnew is seething with enthusiasm for Shakespeare and all things theater – and also for life itself, and whatever magic, mystery and romance it brings.
“I Hate Hamlet” delivers a fascinating factoid: that the Barrymore family’s original surname was Blyth. John’s actor father, Herbert Blyth, created himself the name Maurice Barrymore, and his son, born John Sidney Blyth, also changed his name for the stage.
In fairness, a few one-liners shine through the flawed storyline of “I Hate Hamlet,” and anyone who sees this show should enjoy Barrymore and Andrew’s comedic sword fight, easily the liveliest scene of the evening. These elements and Callaway’s spectacular incarnation of Barrymore are enough to warrant a visit to the charming little hilltop room.
Newport Theater Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach. Until March 6. Duration (including intermission): 2h25. Tickets: $20. Ticket Purchase/Information: (949) 631-0288 or www.ntaconline.com.
Eric Marchese has written on many topics for various publications since the mid-1980s, but he is best known for his coverage of Orange County Theater.