All Things Entertaining and Cultural
We need to find some way of rerouting Paul Rudnick from whatever he might be doing and encouraging him to write a new comedy for every Broadway season.
Rudnick’s wit, quickness, and sensibility are sorely needed. While I can’t think of any play of his that is insightful or profound, I always find literacy, good and well-set up jokes, knowledge of human behavior, and a flair for sending up stereotypes and trends. Rudnick is smart, clear-eyed comedian who plays by the old, and better, rules and structures a play that doesn’t pander or go for cheap laughs Rudnick fully knows are cheap.
Rudnick is a craftsman with a naughty view on life because he sees its foibles effortlessly and has a good time illustrating them for the stage.
The man is funny, as in good funny, observant funny, clever funny, mean funny, go-for-the-throat funny. His plays make you think of dialogue that has the brittleness, urbanity, and moxie to be tossed off, in every role, by Christine Baranski (a frequent Rudnick interpreter). Humor and discernment like Rudnick’s should be everywhere all the time. Hence the fund to keep writing what we enjoy instead doing something piddling like whatever he chooses or thanking heaven his royalties might spare him deadlines, writer’s block, and other people’s opinions.
Luckily, Tom Quinn has brought one of Rudnick’s most famous pieces, “I Hate Hamlet” to the Montgomery Theater where it is being given a first-rate production directed by Quinn and acted with just the right mixture of naturalness and high comic tone, especially by Leonard C. Haas and Jon Mulhearn in their starring roles.
“I Hate Hamlet” is no more than a clever, shrewdly conceived entertainment. To Rudnick’s credit — bless his heart — it doesn’t pretend or aspire to me more. This is a situation comedy, but the situation is loaded with possibilities, and Rudnick takes sharp, skillful advantage of each farcical notion he invents. In other words, it’s drolly thought out, hilariously script elemental comedy at its best.
I have seen about a dozen productions of “I Hate Hamlet,” including the legendary Broadway staging that induced Evan Handler to complain to Actors Equity against his flamboyant co-star Nicol Williamson for getting too violent in performance.
Quinn’s ranks as one of the best. It resists the mistake that usually spoils Rudnick’s craft the most, overplaying. Several characters in “I Hate Hamlet” are larger than life, but they need to retain some human proportion to offset their size and eccentricity. Rudnick isn’t looking for eccentricity, he’s looking for quirks, neurotic or tell-take things like constantly being afraid you’re going to fail or chain smoking long past the time you start gasping for air when you get to the top an escalator. He’s providing the opportunity for expansive performance, but he wants it in control. It has to be someone who earned the right to walk the Earth with a little swagger or pomp or someone who is too mindless or oblivious about everything that doesn’t concern him or his immediate needs, including class and culture. We see examples of all of the above in “I Hate Hamlet.” Quinn and cast keep them neatly in perspective while making sure they mine the gold Rudnick provides them.
Leonard C. Haas is especially gifted at keeping to scale as the ghost of John Barrymore, returned by some kind of deceased actors’ code to coach a new performer in the most challenging role of “Hamlet.” Haas can have Barrymore’s sophistication and style. He can roar with passion when it seems the actors he’s helping, Mulhearn’s Andrew Rally, realize the majesty of a line or the magnitude of Hamlet. He can be coyly playful in a romantic situation that is all the more enticing because he’s dead. But Haas keeps it all human. His performance is as smart and as witty as Rudnick’s script, so he keeps Barrymore’s presence welcome and consistently entertaining. Haas caps a good season of portrayals — “Red Speedo,” “Penelope” — with this at times tongue-in-cheek, at times passionate turn as Barrymore.
Jon Mulhearn, who had a breakthrough of sorts as Wykowski, the brave and libidinous soldier in “Biloxi Blues” at People’s Light. In “I Hate Hamlet,” he shows what he can do as the leading man in a breezy comedy, and his breakthrough is complete. Mulhearn has earned his stripes as an actor who can handle it all, including maturity that goes beyond his insistently juvenile looks.
Mulhearn stylizes his performance more than Haas does. He never lets down his comic persona and anticipation of the big delivery. Within the style, once adopted by most of the “I Hate Hamlet” cast, he remains, above all, human. You believe his angst and misgivings. They seem an integral part of an actor who multiplies his normal anxiety and insecurity about playing any role by taking on Hamlet even though Andrew has never performed Shakespeare outside of college and is known most for being a handsome, intense, and boyish doctor on a television hospital show.
Mulhearn treads the Montgomery boards with a “my Lord, what did I get myself into?” attitude. His fear of playing Hamlet, the inadequacy he knows will impede his success, informs every move Andrew makes. He is one glob of jelly waiting for one more calamity before he goes the edge. Matters are exacerbated because Andrew is aware of the rope that can pull him from theatrical disaster. Meanwhile, Andrew is a high functioning basket case. To Mulhearn’s credit, he plays the nervousness while giving Andrew some spine, some other reasons to be on edge, e.g. a girlfriend who is saving her virginity for the man she is certain will be the right one, and a solid core of credible humanity.
Quinn’s “I Hate Hamlet” is always funny and amusing. It goes beyond Rudnick’s well placed gags to be a show about people facing crossroads situations. Even the hesitant girlfriend, played with wonderful insouciance by regional newcomer Abigall Grace Allwein, or the jaded realtor who claims only lawyers wallow below real estate folks on the humanity charts, played to whirlwind perfection by Jessica Bedford, are embarking on something new, be it sexuality or a marriage that can foster a good riddance to real estate.
Rudnick packs “I Hate Hamlet” with oodles of plot and snappy comedy. Quinn paces the play precisely so we can see and appreciate all of Rudnick’s treasures while never getting bombastic or going overboard. It’s good work that makes the Montgomery even more of a destination in these between-seasons days when most theaters are dark.
“I Hate Hamlet” is about a television performer who is known less for his acting prowess than for his ability to attract fans, build ratings, and have woman swoon.
Though Andrew Rally has coasted to stardom without putting much effort into his work, or giving much attention to maintaining let alone honing his craft, he has been booked to play five weeks of “Hamlet” live in New York’s Central Park, his agent kvelling about the opportunity to establish a reputation beyond television.
To facilitate his Manhattan stay, Bedford’s realtor has found him the ideal apartment, the one John Barrymore, the greatest Hamlet of his generation, occupied for the last decades of his life. Rumor is, the real estate mayven says, Barrymore’s ghost remains and sometimes materializes, usually when there’s a cocktail to filch.
Andrew doesn’t even know whether he’s going to keep this “Hamlet” commitment or scuttle it to return to L.A. and friendlier, more familiar waters. His taste runs towards the modern, and he hates Barrymore’s rather traditional flat on sight. He hasn’t done a classic in years and believes to the depth of his being, except when somebody else says it, he is not equipped to attempt, let alone play, Hamlet. He doesn’t even like Hamlet. Or Shakespeare. He is also upset that after five months together he and his girlfriend have had no sex. That news gets just about everyone but the girlfriend upset.
His agent, played with a weird combination of sarcasm and panache by Cynthia Raff, is not the type to take no for an answer. Also, she is not losing a commission based on Andrew’s cold feet or disappointing her contacts at the Public Theatre, which may cut her if Andrew reneges on the deal she made for him. Add to the mix a monumentally obtuse television producer who rushes to New York to tell Andrew of a new series he’s sold about a dedicated teacher who is committed to his students’ education to a laudably sentimental point and who also — wait for it — attains super powers during evening hours.
Rudnick gets to lampoon all kinds of urban, theater, and Hollywood types while staying within the framework of his basic story, which is Barrymore physically materializing, in too, too solid flesh as opposed to gooey protoplasm, and influencing Andrew’s life in significant ways.
The byplay between Barrymore and Andrew is funny, and at times touching. Haas and Mulhearn always find the right tone to maximize their scenes. Allwein, Bedford, Raff, and Aaron Kirkpatrick as the TV producer, all come and go grabbing their deserved share of comic attention while never pulling focus and always keeping Quinn’s production clean and diverting as an ensemble.
Allwein, with yellow look hair, looks girlish in her Laura Ashley style — One dress is almost too hideous to conceive.– and comes off as a creature of sunny innocence who sincerely believes she will know her soulmate and relinquish her maidenhood to him alone.
Allwein’s Deirdre is the one from acting class who is competent but who never makes a success of her career the way Andrew does. Far from being embittered by that, she enjoys flitting around Manhattan while playing a bit role, one of Ophelia’s handmaidens, in “Hamlet.”
Deirdre, unlike her namesake of the sorrows, is congenitally perky and update. Allwein’s gift is to show the character’s sexy, sensuous side, the one she’d like to show but can’t take beyond teasing, while conveying the substance and romantic nature that keeps Andrew attracted to her, abstinence and all. Like Andrew, she is inspired to greater heights by the ghost of Barrymore who has a mature, experience way of approaching a woman the callow and younger Andrew, spoiled by living in an age when sex is taken for granted, doesn’t quite know how to muster.
Bedford is dreadfully pushy as Felicia, the realtor, and is all the funnier for how much she captures the driven city businesswoman who will get Andrew to lease Barrymore’s apartment whether he sees all the wonderful coincidences she sees in it or not. Making a living is Felicia’s aim, and Bedford turns her into another, equally dedicated, kind of saleswoman when she realizes the mutual attraction between Felicia and Kirkpatrick’s wealthy boor of a TV producer.
Aaron Kirkpatrick makes that producer, Gary Peter Lefkowitz, as crass as you can get while remaining comic and palatable to the audience. This is a man who can figure how theater survives let alone draws a star like Andrew to its antiquated, no-lifetime-residual bosom. He has a deal any actor would jump at, and he can’t understand how Andrew could hold out, or even less the offer pass by, to do something as corny as “Hamlet” to 500 people in the rain when he could be playing a teacher with nocturnal superpowers in front of millions if he would return to L.A, and television.
Raff, always dressed as if she is going off to some smart lunch, opening, or dinner party, is nicely insistent with Andrew and slinkily seductive to Barrymore, with whom she long ago had a tryst in the apartment Andrew now rents.’
Raff’s Lillian comes looking for a ghost and is not disappointed.
Every actor is on his or her game and none more than Haas and Mulhearn who dominate the stage in their shared lead.
Quinn was shrewd at choosing Haas, a memorable Hamlet at Bristol Riverside and one who would know the part and be able to give Mulhearn’s Andrew an approach to it. Haas also enjoyed conveying the dash and style of Barrymore, who came from a grander, more romantic era and retains his period’s assurance and charm.
Haas keeps a comic perspective during some frustrating sessions with Mulhearn’s Andrew. He, Rudnick, and Quinn make the most of a sequence in which Barrymore, alone on the opening night when all of the other characters are at the theater, learns the contemporary joy of snacking on candy, chips, and ice cream and lounging in front of a television, where he falls asleep. The passage is a good idea, and Haas plays it excellent.
He is also an able fencer, as is Mulhearn, who presents a challenge to fight director John Bellomo by being left-handed. This made the dueling more interesting to watch as both fencers will have their bodies facing the stage and be in a surprising position to someone accustomed to dueling in a more conventional style when swords are held in polarly opposite hands.
Mulhearn makes you like Andrew to the great extent you can forgive his wavering, his initial resistance to Haas’s Barrymore, and his general neurosis.
Mulhearn is especially good at measuring Rudnick’s lines and delivering them for the best comic effect. His timing is precise, and even his whining works to elicit laughs. He also conveys the persona of a successful TV actor who knows his value and is aware he doesn’t have to push or test himself to have fame and wealth from his chosen career.
The Barrymore apartment is well laid out, but it might be interesting to know why set designer Guenter Wesch chose hot pink for its dominant hue. That certainly could not be a Barrymore choice. He would want to provide the energy and flair in a room and not to have to compete with the wall color. The relentless pink becomes even more of a curiosity when you wonder a tiger’s head, that centers the lintel just under the mantel of the fireplace and has fangs shining menacingly in an assaultive way, is also pink. The décor jars at time but doesn’t mar as much as it makes one curious. Matters improve exponentially when Barrymore’s furniture, which Andrew declares musty and old-fashioned, arrives.
Costumer Angela Hoerner did an excellent job with everyone’s wardrobe, find just the right long sashes for Lillian and two distinct, but proper period costumes for Barrymore’s and Andrew’s Hamlets. The one question is where she found and why she used a monstrosity of a flowered dress with a modest lace color for Deirdre’s first costume. The floor-length piece looked as if Laura Ashley had vomited large tea roses between black areas and white accents. The dress is so un-New York, even for the ’90s when “I Hate Hamlet” is set, and so over the top, I can’t imagine Deirdre, or anyone, wearing it. Luckily, it appears in one scene than vanishes. To Allwein’s credit, she never calls attention to or seems self-conscious in the horror. Why bother? The dress is garnering enough notice on its own.
Jim Leiter’s lighting, which includes a blackout, worked fine. Bellomo’s swordplay was exciting and gave Haas and Mulhearn a chance to show their fencing mettle. (Shakespeare does tell us Hamlet is an excellent and practiced fencer.)
“I Hate Hamlet” runs through Sunday, July 12, at the Montgomery Theater, 124 Main Street, in Souderton, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. No performance is scheduled for Saturday, July 4. It will be played at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, July 8. Tickets range from $35 to $26 and can be obtained by calling 215-732-9984 or by visiting www.montgomerytheater.org.