All's Well and Ends Swell
The perfect antidote to the epidemic of bad acting and anemic material infecting Dallas stages this winter is Paul Rudnick's I Hate Hamlet at Addison's WaterTower Theatre. A wonderfully acted, bitingly witty paean to Willy the Shake and all things theatrical, the play also aims healthy doses of good-natured ribbing at lawyers, psychics, real estate agents, Greenwich Village, TV medical shows, Los Angeles, Mormons, 25-year-old virgins and the torturous Actors Studio Method. Full of inside jokes about show biz, the play manages, with surprising subtlety, to impart a lofty message about the eternal war between commerce and art.
Caught in the struggle is Andrew Rally (played by Ethan Hawke-like Shannon Michael Wamser), a popular but artistically bland young star of a TV hospital drama. He has been lured to New York City to play (for no money) the melancholy Dane in a Shakespeare in the Park production. Scared witless of taking on theater's most famous and challenging leading role, Andrew reluctantly leases a spooky Gothic apartment in the Village. There, he discovers he has a roommate, the ghost of actor John Barrymore (Bill Jenkins), who occupied the place when he played his electrifying, sexually charged Hamlet on Broadway in 1922.
Summoned from the other side by the pop of a champagne cork, following a séance with Andrew's "kawfee tawk" real estate lady (Arianna Movassagh) and wispy, no-sex-no-how girlfriend Dierdre (Stacey Oristano), Barrymore makes his appearance in profile (what else?), stepping out of a roiling cloud of mist clad as Hamlet in Elizabethan tights and glittering codpiece.
"Am I dead? Or just incredibly drunk?" Barrymore roars, grabbing the bottle of champers that he'll cuddle like a teddy bear for the rest of the evening.
Visible only to Andrew (and later to a brash Hollywood producer and an agent), Barrymore's restless spirit must remain trapped in his palatial old digs until he's successfully coached the younger actor in the part of the Sweet Prince. In training the kid to tread the boards, Barrymore, of course, must also impart a few important life lessons. It's Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit and Woody Allen's Play It Again, Sam reinvented with sitcom slickness for the Friends generation: Sexy ghost helps hapless schnook realize his dreams.
Barrymore's secondary task in I Hate Hamlet is to assist Andrew in defining exactly what his dream is. After opening night, Andrew is faced with a tempting offer from a Hollywood shark (played with pastel smarm by Ethan Ward). Walk away from Shakespeare in the Park (the reviews are lousy anyway), and Andrew can earn $3 million a year to star in a new network series about a high school teacher with superhuman powers.
What's the big deal about Shakespeare anyway? harrumphs the producer. "It's like algebra onstage."
TV or not TV? That is the question Rudnick writes for Andrew, and it's one that Rudnick himself must have grappled with in his career as one of Hollywood's funniest screenwriters (In & Out, Addams Family Values) and highest-paid script doctors. (The bit about Barrymore's apartment really happened to the playwright, too. He lived there in the 1980s.)
In the real world, we know what the answer would be for most any aspiring actor presented with the choice of working hard for no money or not so hard for a frickin' fortune. But in this case, Rudnick insists that the play's the thing, and we are pretty sure that Andrew will to his own self be true, even if that means, as the Hollywood guy warns him, a few seasons doing Chekhov in church basements in front of empty folding chairs.
This all gets itchily sentimental at times, especially toward the end. Barrymore, left to haunt the apartment alone on Andrew's opening night, is reunited with an old lover who just happens to be Andrew's old-ish agent Lillian (played by Melinda Mills with a gutsy Prussian accent and a deep smoker's cough). Lillian, who the play hints is about to shuffle off her mortal coil any minute, not only can see Barrymore's ghost, she can kiss him and waltz with him to music that swells up out of who knows where like the Max Steiner score of a Bette Davis weepy.
Even when Rudnick's writing and this production teeter perilously close to hokum, the WaterTower's six actors manage to keep their feet out of the pudding. They're confident enough to know what they're doing without overdoing it (thanks to director Henry Fonte's insistence on a light touch, even in that waltzing scene). They never trip up on the quippy dialogue, and they only gently nibble the scenery and only when absolutely necessary.
Young Wamser starts out a little shaky but grows more confident in Act 2, when his Andrew character has benefited from Barrymore's tutelage, going from bland pretty boy to brooding tragedian. As the virginal gal-pal Dierdre, Oristano is as light as chiffon in Act 1, but succumbs to Barrymore's seductive spell later on and turns sexy-earthy.
Playing the ghost of "The Great Profile," Jenkins is full-on great. He may look nothing like the original, but he manages to inhabit the character completely, finding grace and sweetness in a role that could be simply big and hammy. It helps that Jenkins moves comfortably in those tights (great gams, this guy) and that he has a spectacular stage voice and perfect diction. He rattles the rafters unaided by mikes and gets the most from every syllable. If you see a lot of local theater, you know what a rare skill this is.
Jenkins also buckles great swash in the choreographed swordplay required at the end of Act 1, a scene that unfolds like the finale of the film My Favorite Year, which starred Peter O'Toole as a washed-up old cinema star not unlike Errol Flynn. And just as O'Toole did in the movie, Jenkins' Barrymore, in true master thespian form (as Rudnick intends), finishes I Hate Hamlet with a showy flourish, demonstrating to his younger co-star how to fake-react sincere humility as waves of applause wash over the stage (a ploy that sends the audience out smiling and satisfied).
In real life, the end of John Barrymore's life story was less uplifting. He was washed up by the 1930s, pickled by alcohol and regret. In the films he made in the '30s, he already was a ghost of his formerly magnificent self, stumbling drunkenly through roles in Grand Hotel and A Bill of Divorcement (he died in '42 at age 60).
We don't see that Barrymore, though the playwright does allow the character a run through his personal résumé of successes and failures to educate Andrew (and the young folk in the audience) about the life of one of the 20th century's greatest actors. (And yes, Drew is related, named for John's mother, actress Georgiana Drew.)
Rudnick, whose funniest writing showed up under the pseudonym "Libby Gelman-Waxner" in a celeb-dishing column in Premiere magazine, has written himself a reliable evergreen with this play. By turning down the volume on his usually gay-centric bitchery (Rudnick's other play is the hey-girlfriend gay melodrama Jeffrey), he ensures this comedy's appeal to a general audience. In the WaterTower's aces production, it's clear what a gem this play is in the right hands. Lacing the humor of I Hate Hamlet with a few selected lines from Shakespeare and some appropriately thoughtful musings by a gentle spirit, the play offers theatergoers a little Will and a lot of grace.
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