By John Dwyer
The Bucks County Playhouse has saved its best for last with this brilliant production of “I Hate Hamlet.”
“I Hate Hamlet” is a comedy by Paul Rudnick that is about a young actor from L.A., Andrew Rally, who has made mega bucks in a TV show about doctors. He has come to New York City and has an offer to play Hamlet for the Public Theater’s “Shakespeare in the Park.” His real estate agent had found him a terrific apartment that serendipitously is the old home of John Barrymore, one of the stage’s greatest Hamlets. At a séance that is conducted by the real estate agent with his business agent and girlfriend in attendance, the ghost of John Barrymore is brought back to the apartment. And from there, Barrymore becomes Andrew’s acting coach, his mentor and his relationship consultant. This play is hilariously funny.
When this show originally opened in 1991 in New York, it became a bit of a legend itself as the embodiment of John Barrymore seemed to be all too real when played by Nicol Williamson.
Williamson had been one of the great Hamlets, and was known for erratic, over-the-top behavior, not unlike Barrymore. He drank heavily and claimed to smoke 80 cigarettes a day. His ad lib antics on stage during the original Broadway run became notorious. He would criticize his fellow actors’ performances onstage out loud so the audience could hear, which made his costar playing the young actor one night quit at the end of Act One after a fight scene. The actor also was whacked on the butt with the backside of his sword. It was the evening when Elaine Stritch and Gregory Peck happened to be in the audience, to further the embarrassment. The actor, Evan Handler, exited the stage and left the theater. Act Two and the rest of the run was done by his understudy, Andrew Mutnick.
Williamson, if looking down from heaven, would be thoroughly entertained and learn a few things, I might say, by this more disciplined production that hits all the right notes.
I am a pushover for smart, funny, gay Jewish men, so I may be coming into this play with a bias. I have never met a Rudnick piece I didn’t like. He also wrote the play “Jeffrey,” which is also a film. In its original incarnation, the love interest of the title character was Steve, who was played by Tom Hewitt, this production’s Barrymore. I did not see “I Hate Hamlet” when it was on Broadway, but I did see “Jeffrey,” which dealt with love relationships in the time of AIDS. Rudnick’s gift of mixing the serious with the funny was evident in that work, as it is in “I Hate Hamlet.” A common thread in both works is that life is choices and challenges, but nothing great will happen unless you meet your fears.
Giving Rudnick two hours of your time and the cost of a ticket will give you belly laughs and something to think about — nothing to hondle over, it’s a real metsye prayz. To further understand what I just said, buy Rudnick’s book about shopping and antiquing, the hilarious “I’ll Take It,” if you can find a used copy. It is a laugh-out-loud fast read.
The actors are uniformly wonderful. Ben Fankhauser plays Andrew Rally with the right mixture of insecurity and ambition that is the hallmark of youth. He excels in finding the truth and the correct balance of those qualities that drives artists to take on big canvases, like Hamlet, which are there like Mount Everest to tackle. As the protagonist, his abilities are pivotal. In less capable hands, the comedy would be lost or the real conflicts that exist in the role would be diminished. But Fankhauser has mined the part in both areas and has given us a true gem. We laugh, but we care, and are moved in the end by his decisions.
Hewitt is handsome and charming, and those qualities that, no doubt, come naturally. They are perfect for John Barrymore. This performance could overpower the point of the play if portrayed as if he were more of a bombastic cad. Hewitt entices with bravado, but as Andrew’s literal spiritual mentor, never loses the sense that he is there for the young lad. Tom Hewitt, after 25 years since “Jeffrey” happened, is playing it still sexy as ever.
Also, looking amazing, is Elizabeth Ashley, who plays the business agent for the young actor, Lillian Troy. I won’t go on too much about that, as my other half Herb and I greeted her at the stage door of the Booth after a performance of “Dividing the Estate” with a photo in tow for an autograph of a much younger Ashley. I gushed how she looked as beautiful now as then. Her response was classically diva. She said in freezing temps as she signed, “Don’t f*ck with me, boys! I have earned every wrinkle.” She knew her audience. My husband and I ate that up, and giggled or something like that. When onstage, you can’t take your eyes off Ashley. When Barrymore was alive, her character Lillian Troy, knew him. Ashley gets opportunities for being the aggressive agent, a mother hen to young Andrew and to wax nostalgic to the days of her youth, when she met the great Barrymore. She is marvelous.
Liz Holtan as Deirdre McDavey, the girlfriend, has an ethereal quality that only sweet, privileged girlfriends can have. Janine LaManna as Felicia Dantine, the real estate agent has all the moxie in the world as the scene stealing realtor, Steve SanPietro as Gary Peter Lefkowitiz, the television producer personifies L.A. vacuous, smoggy doubletalk as the television producer/writer. Think a much nicer, more attractive Ari Gold from Entourage.
Marc Bruni, director, could not have cast better or directed a more spot-on show. Additional kudos to scenic designer Anna Louizos for the impressive apartment needed for the grandiose Barrymore.
This show is what the Bucks County Playhouse is all about. Great actors telling great stories. At the end, the audience jumped to its feet. It stayed there and stayed there. It was worthy of a Barrymore. The show runs til Dec. 1, and tickets can be purchased online.