Monday, February 29, 2016

Theater Review: I Hate Hamlet -- Playhouse on Park

Ezra Barnes, Julia Hochner and Susan Slotoroff. Photo: Rich Wagner
To Be or Not to Be Amused. That is the Question
By Lauren Yarger
Hate Hamlet? Who could hate Hamlet?

Well, maybe a young actor who is forced to play him on the stage while being coached by the ghost of one his most famous portrayers: John Barrymore.

That is the premise of Paul Rudnick’s light-hearted romp I Hate Hamlet getting a run over at Playhouse on Park. Dan Whelton stars as Andrew, a Hollywood actor made famous by a stint on a TV medical series, who finds himself memorizing lines to take on one of the stage’s most daunting roles. Forced by his agent, Lillian (Ruth Neaveill), who once had a fling with the famous actor, to try Shakespeare in the Park when no other offers come in following the cancelled TV series, he admits that he just hates Hamlet.

He’s distraught, but girlfriend Deirdre (Susan Slotoroff) is turned on by the idea of his playing the tortured Dane, and in her case, this is significant, because she has been withholding herself from a sexual relationship during their five-month courtship because she is saving herself for Mr. Right. 
Her perfect guy actually sounds a lot like John Barrymore (Ezra Barnes), the handsome, boozing, womanizing actor who was the quintessential Hamlet.

As luck would have it, real estate agent Felicia (Julia Hochner) leases Barrymore’s former digs in Washington Square – a gothic and expansive (designed by Emily Nichols) penthouse apartment – to Andrew. Fortunately (but glaringly in a contrivance to further the plot), Felicia is a medium who is able to communicate with the dead through the spirit of her mother and the group quickly decides to hold a séance in hopes of conjuring Barrymore’s ghost to give Andrew some insights into the role.

He shows up, but Andrew is reluctant to yield to the great actor’s advice for text and swordplay, afraid to discover that he might not have what it takes to play the role. He also isn’t happy about Barrymore’s amorous attentions toward Deidre. His friend, Gary (David Larson) tries to convince him to give up this whole Hamlet thing and to return to Hollywood where a new series requires less of him as an actor and lots more money.

Barnes stands out as the pompous, booze-guzzling Barrymore. In a rather bizarre plot, I totally bought him as the spirit of the great actor, making the best of an opportunity to revisit his life. The cast, under the direction of Vince Tyler, seems to be working hard to convince us the play is funny. There are some laugh-out-loud lines, to be sure, but the plot is not cohesive and is too contrived to keep us laughing for too long. A side story about Lillian’s probably being very ill, for example, doesn’t go anywhere and seems out of place. 

Neaveille struggles with her character’s German accent and Costumer Soule Golden has characters dressed in odd garb in an attempt to honor the play’s 1980s setting ( gosh fashion was horrible then), but the clothes don’t scream ’80s, so instead just lend to the general confusion. Two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission is too long a stretch to get the play’s predictable conclusion.

Despite the flaws Barnes, who is the founder of Connectcut’s Shakepeare on the Sound and apparently who never has gotten to play Hamlet, is a treat and the hard-working cast does their best to try to entertain.

I Hate Hamlet runs through March 13 at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Rd, West Hartford. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets $22.50-$35: www.playhouseonpark.org; (860) 523-5900 x10.


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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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