Paul Rudnick’s I Hate Hamlet whisks us back to the innocent, halcyon days of 1991, when gay men could still write innocuous, frothy comedies with single-unit sets and zany characters — and get away with it. Of course, Tony Kushner’s subsequent time-, space-, and gender-bending Angels in America torpedoed that implicit social contract with straight America, and to his credit, Rudnick stepped up to the plate, sometimes with happy results (the 1995 love-in-the-time-of-HIV comedy Jeffrey) and sometimes not (the recent disjointed and strangely self-loathing The New Century). The Cameo’s selection of I Hate Hamlet, however, is not likely to ruffle any feathers (or quills): It is witty, quintessentially summer fare.
The current production, helmed by Don Frame, is a game attempt at an old-fashioned, Noel Coward-esque comedy, though the performances never gel into anything like farce. Indeed, I Hate Hamlet is more sketch than play, with just the barest rudiments of a plot: Andrew, a strapping and successful Hollywood actor, accepts a surprise offer to play Hamlet in Shakespeare in the Park, to the consternation of his agents and media-savvy friends; during the rehearsal period, he rents the former flat of John Barrymore, the famous actor and lush (not necessarily in that order). A preposterously executed séance conjures up the ghost of Barrymore — bottle in hand — who proceeds to tutor Andrew in the fine art of the fine arts, especially Acting For The Stage. Hilarity ensues.
Or, at least, hilarity occasionally ensues. The problem with theatrical fluff is that it needs to be cast and coordinated perfectly, and the Cameo’s ensemble of six seems to inhabit several different plays, Rudnick’s and Shakespeare’s excluded. Hayley Burnside, as Andrew’s frigid and flighty girlfriend, channels a screwball voice and characterization from the ’40s, while Chris Berry — as the oft-befuddled Andrew — sticks to broadly performed sit-com shtick. Dave Cortez’s entertaining, hyperkinetic producer could be lifted from Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow, while Joanne Cabrera earns a moment in the spotlight as a fading reminder of Hollywood’s studio years, with a nod to Garbo and Dietrich. (Ayn Phillips rounds out the supporting cast as a real-estate broker with sporadically ectoplasmic powers.) Thus it’s only in scattered, individual moments that the production coheres as a zinger-laced examination of the conflicts of art and commerce, of California’s superficiality and Manhattan’s (purported)
I Hate Hamlet works better in the shorter, more wistful second act, as Barrymore (played in pantaloons and high style by Byrd Bonner) comes to see in Andrew a chance for post-mortem redemption, a way to atone for his own talent (and liver) squandered. Andrew likewise sees in Barrymore a chance to pursue a calling higher than NBC. And Rudnick plays with fire by including genuine Shakespearean soliloquies in the midst of all this tomfoolery. The actors handle such potentially tricky transitions with grace, abetted by James Teninty’s lighting design and set designer Onoshi Dident’s mash-up of Elsinore and Pier 1 Imports.
In some respects, time has not been kind to the central conceit of I Hate Hamlet: Keanu Reeves actually played the Melancholy Dane in Winnipeg in 1995, an excellent adventure I would have bared anything — even my bodkin — to see. And Jude Law puts the ham in Hamlet on Broadway this October, so essaying legitimate Shakespeare is obviously not the kiss of box-office death. The Cameo’s current production — already a bit pricey at $29.50 — doesn’t have the fizz and polish of, say, the Vexler Theater’s best efforts at this sort of goofiness, but it’s not a disaster, either. Perhaps in the future the Cameo will take a stab at later, more intriguing Rudnick fare, such as 2004’s Valhalla? ’Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.
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