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Theatre Reviews : The Barrymore, the Merrier in ‘I Hate Hamlet’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You just can’t hate “I Hate Hamlet.”

It’s as shamelessly superficial as its lead--a pretty-boy sitcom star who gets cast as Hamlet in New York’s Shakespeare in the Park. But, hey, like the late Larry Shue, playwright Paul Rudnick knows where the laugh buttons are, and he pushes them like a virtuoso.

Now in a pleasing production at the North Coast Repertory Theatre, “I Hate Hamlet” was Paul Rudnick’s first hit when it opened on Broadway in 1991. The playwright has since become known for doctoring “The Addams Family” film and writing “Addams Family Values” and for penning another surprise hit play, “Jeffrey,” a serious yet funny story about a gay man so scared of AIDS that he swears off sex.

But here he’s just having fun. Sure, there are some messages about art versus show business as the star’s passion to do free “Hamlet” in New York conflicts with his desire to make scads of money playing high-concept TV roles in LaLa Land. But these messages are just setups for the jokes.

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And the jokes are good enough to gloss over the script’s flimsiness.

Andrew Rally (Michael Schwarz) is the star who has--reluctantly--agreed to do “Hamlet,” mainly because his latest show, “L.A. Medical,” was just canceled. His romantic but chaste girlfriend, Deirdre (Stina Sundberg Lake), is wildly enthusiastic about him doing “Hamlet.” So is his real estate agent, Felicia (Dawne Ellison), who wants him to keep the apartment she found for him--an ornate but run-down get-up that used to house John Barrymore.

Rally’s friend, writer/producer Gary Peter Lefkowitz (Seth Neely), thinks Rally should jump into another TV show and refers to “Hamlet” as “algebra on stage.” As for art, Lefkowitz says: “You don’t do art. You buy it.”

And just as commerce is about to win out, Barrymore himself (Stanley Madruga Jr.) returns from the dead to coach Rally as Hamlet.

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It’s been said that there are no small parts, only small actors. Under Olive Blakistone’s direction, it’s the small parts that carry the day. The leads are caricaturish cliches, and it’s hard to imagine anyone who is not innately funny--like a Jerry Seinfeld--pulling off Rally. Schwarz, despite a hard-working performance, lacks the necessary wry, self-mocking sensibility.

It’s also hard to imagine anyone making Deirdre anything but a silly goose--though Lake, an appealing actress, does try hard. And that makes Rally’s obsession with her even harder to care about.

But then Ellison, Madruga and Neely ride to the rescue. And for comedy connoisseurs, you cannot top Ellison as the pushy but dour real estate agent. She is impeccable as she matter-of-factly delivers a line about how she finally got her dead mother to talk to her at a seance: “Ma, it’s after 10; the rates are down. Bingo.”

Madruga, a wildly theatrical actor, plays Barrymore over the top--though, thankfully, not as far over the top as Nicol Williamson did on Broadway, getting drunk and stabbing his co-star. But Madruga succeeds in getting as many laughs with looks as he does with such lines as “I know I’m dead and shall be for all eternity. But I still don’t have all day!” And while Neely needs to build up confidence and speed as producer/writer Lefkowitz, he knows where his zingers are: “An actor--what’s that? An English guy who can’t get a series.”

According to the playwright’s notes, Rudnick was inspired to write this piece when he rented an apartment where Barrymore had lived in 1904. This production captures the flavor of it in Marty Burnett’s handsome set design. John-Bryan Davis did his usual fine work with the costumes, with Valerie Honea doing Rally’s and Barrymore’s black velvet, heavy medallion Hamlet outfits.

It’s all good but harmless fun, a crowd-pleaser but not a brain-teaser and, ironically, a lot more like the fluff Lefkowitz advocates for TV than the substantial nature of “Hamlet” that Rally is supposedly rallying for.

* “I Hate Hamlet,” North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach. Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Ends June 5. $14-$16. (619) 481-1055. Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes. Dawne Ellison Felicia Dantine

Michael Schwarz: Andrew Rally

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Stina Sundberg Lake: Deirdre McDavey

Sandra Ellis-Troy: Lillian Troy

Stanley Madruga: John Barrymore

Gary Peter Lefkowitz: Seth Neely

A North Coast Repertory Theatre production of the comedy by Paul Rudnick. Directed by Olive Blakistone. Sets by Marty Burnett. Lighting by Samantha Terzis. Costumes by John-Bryan Davis and Valerie Honea. Sound by Michael Shapiro. Stage manager: Loralie McGill.


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