The premise of "I Hate Hamlet," Paul Rudnick's much-revived farce from 1991, is that a young Los Angeles television star would have to be nuts to knock himself out doing Shakespeare in Central Park for a handful of intellectuals and squirrels.
"It's algebra on stage," squeaks the Malibu-loving agent of fictional soap star Andrew May, appalled that his hot client would move into the New York home of a has-been like John Barrymore, meet the ghostly former inhabitant and then promptly turn down a network series. Explore existential couplets while gulping down mosquitoes? Where's the merchandising, baby?
The clever gags and romantic subplot notwithstanding, "I Hate Hamlet" is really about purist New York theater-lover Rudnick venting against dumb audiences, L.A., the Hollywood establishment and, mostly, television.
Watching Ray Frewen's solid revival Sunday night, one couldn't help muse on how the power structure of the entertainment world has changed in the short time since this play's sojourn on Broadway.
Even as this production rehearsed at the Drury Lane Oakbrook, the Hollywood likes of Meryl Streep, Mike Nichols and Christopher Walken had been falling over each other to boost their careers by getting involved with the New York Shakespeare Festival's revival of "The Seagull." In 2001, Andrew May's agent would tell him he had no choice but to do "Hamlet" in the park. Oh, and Rudnick? He writes mainly for Hollywood these days.
Such ironies have not dimmed the pleasures of this notorious comedy. "I Hate Hamlet" is famous in theater circles because the eccentric original Barrymore, Nigel Williamson, smacked co-actor Evan Handler with a sword on stage. For real. After that, Handler refused to go back on stage with Williamson.
This incarnation benefits greatly from John Reeger's performance. With his craggy features, booming voice and hopelessly classical demeanor, Reeger does not to have stretch like most actors to be a credible Barrymore. He's funny, honest and thoroughly entertaining.
Susan Hart, who seems to have done so many shows this summer, it's amazing she can keep track, is also superb as a cynical real-estate agent. Her faux hysteria in the Act One seance is a masterful piece of comic acting. Derek Hasenstab is also dead-on as Gary Peter Lefkowitz's Tinsel Town archetype.
The rest of the cast takes a bit longer to warm up in a well-meaning production. The buff, handsome Martin Yurek looks the part of Andrew, but he misses the raw fear and vulnerability necessary in the first act. And the overly restrained Bernadette O'Malley could go much further as Barrymore's old flame.
But along with Andrea Washburn's Deidre, things find a smoother groove in the stronger second act. And while no farcical heights were scaled on opening night, the audience clearly enjoyed yet another chance to see one of the best American farces of the 1990s.
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