The jazzy opening music may have evoked a “New York State of Mind” but what is evoked by I Hate Hamlet – in hilarious detail – is the entire history of acting as we knew it to be in the 20th Century. The acclaimed satirist Paul Rudnick’s 2007 farce is both his homage and a gleefully wicked offering.
The homage comes in a recitation of Hamlet’s famous advice to actors – [“speak the speech, I pray you…”] – as calmly and stirringly, delivered by J. Paul Boehmer as Lionel Barrymore, who, according to some, was his generation’s greatest Hamlet.
But I’m getting ahead of the story …
Andy, a modern TV actor, played by Ben Rosenbaum, feels he’s through being a hack. He auditions for Hamlet – not just any Hamlet, but Joseph Papp’s Hamlet, for New York’s storied and enviable Shakespeare in the Park – yes, THAT Central Park. To his knee-knocking horror, he wins the role.
Coincidentally – or is it his destiny? – Andy’s move from Hollywood to take on the role pairs him with a slightly over-dressed for day-wear real estate agent who lands him in Barrymore’s old digs. And what digs they are. Pioneer Theatre’s set designer, Tom Buderwitz, has spectacularly recreated the legendary 1920’s 2-story Brownstone penthouse in soaring detail: wood beams and paneling, a turning staircase preening for grand entrances and a realistic marble fireplace. I was in the 4th row center. The main curtain towered above us, and upon the set reveal, complete with a back wall of rain-spattered windows, I was flat-out floored. Lighting designer Paul Miller created moods that were perfectly supportive. [Funny story: Rudnick was inspired to write this play when he moved in to the actual penthouse in the late 80’s.]
This opulent apartment is now reputed to be inhabited by the great Barrymore’s ghost, the instigator of all that ensues. Just as the set is bigger than life, so it is with Boehmer’s Barrymore. And how could it be any other way? It is his task to turn a TV pitchman into none other than Hamlet, the ultimate challenge. Rosenbaum as Andy arrives on scene somewhat defeated; he thinks he may be burning out as an actor, and yet he has been offered a terrifying challenge. He worries his casting as Hamlet is a gimmick because he is a TV star. It takes Barrymore/Boehmer to reawaken Andy/Rosenbaum’s inner actor, and they do so in a dazzling bit of excellent swashbuckling.
But haters gonna hate, and Gary, Andy’s manager, can’t fathom why Andy is taking his career into a dive doing Shakespeare, whom he unselfconsciously describes as “algebra on stage.” As Gary, Todd Cerveris browbeats Andy with a TV Pilot and a moral choice: art or money? With Shakespeare, Gary complains, “Andy, you’ll probably be great, but how can you tell?” Cerveris is the perfect Philistine.
We could not have asked for a Barrymore surer and more resoundingly clear than J. Paul Boehmer gives us. Boehmer’s presence is large – more real than a ghost. It is through his lens that Rudnick takes down modern acting. We watch as Andy “prepares” for rehearsal by executing odd exhalations and mood massage. Barrymore sits bemused. Here we get the bit of send-up I was expecting from a work called I Hate Hamlet. The whole “sense-memory” exercise of the modern actor indulging his angst is justly skewered. “Be quiet, I’m going to Act” says Barrymore as he ribs Andy. Barrymore’s chortle scorns the new “truth” in theater. The real Barrymore died just as the “method” began sweeping New York acting schools, and taking over their training.
Whatever the “method”, however, Pioneer Theatre’s cast is all pro no matter how they got there. Nell Gwynn is well known to Salt Lake audiences. As Felicia the “psychic” real estate agent, she works her famous comic timing perfectly. She’s sincerely phony. We don’t see much of Alyssa Gargarin as the deliberately virginal Deidre, but as Andy’s spritely girlfriend caught between two Hamlets, there’s a thaw.
As Lillian, Andy’s New York agent, Sybil Lines brings in class and that wonderful sensibility known during the Mid-Century Moderne era as “madcap.” Line’s program bio reads like a dream and she dazzles in David Kay Mickelsen’s elegant costuming. She deftly goes two directions at once telling us that old people making love is “distasteful and creates jealousy.”
I Hate Hamlet is richly textured for drama-phones in love with the capital “T” Theatre. Here we get both satire and swordplay. It’s goofy intellectual fun which director Art Manke makes the most of, including the great fight sequence on the architectural set. It’s theatrical to the last – specialty theater for theater lovers. I was surprised at how fast the first act’s hour went. With Manke’s pacing, we didn’t even think about time going by, though I think he could have afforded more time to the moment when Barrymore poignantly admits he became a sold-out alcoholic in his last years.
Thank you to the Pioneer Theatre and Front Row Reviewers Utah for letting me cover this production. It is a wonder watching a full Equity cast representing immense experience and thousands of roles convincing us that seeing is believing.
Lillian: “Should I be afraid of Death?’
Barrymore: “No – only of Life.”
Pioneer Memorial Theatre – March 20 – April 4, 2015
7:30 pm Mon – Thurs; 8:00 pm Fri & Sat; 2:00 pm Saturday matinees
FREE parking north of the Rice-Eccles Stadium, one block south of the theatre.
Tickets: $38 – $44. Rush tickets available; call the box office for details: 801.581.6961
University of Utah Campus – 300 South 1400 East, SLC, UT 84114