By James V. Ruocco
In Paul Rudnick's "I Hate Hamlet," a hilarious 1981 comedy that draws inspiration from "Bell, Book and Candle," "Goodbye, Charlie," "Topper" and "Blithe Spirit," among other works, popular television actor Andrew Rally ("L.A. Medical") struggles with these issues and many more once the ghost of matinee idol John Barrymore comes back to earth via a seance to convince the disillusioned actor to accept the Shakespearean role of a lifetime and abandon all thoughts of fame and fortune including a guaranteed back account with a three million dollar deposit.
"I Hate Hamlet" is good-natured, escapist fun with no real message except to make theatergoers laugh out loud, stamp their feet, drop their playbills and enjoy a drink or two at intermission as Rudnick's outrageous plotline kicks into high gear producing giggles, shouts and roars that come at you nonstop from everywhere in the house.
This is comedy - slap-bang-wallop - played out in gorgeous living color at Music Theatre Connecticut, an immersive, inviting venue where earlier this season a faded silent screen star attempted a comeback at Paramount Pictures and a womanizing Italian opera star found himself being replaced on stage at an opening night gala by a nerdy wannabe with a singing voice that cried "grand opera."
With "I Hate Hamlet," there are lightning bolts.
Candles that flicker.
A dash or two of Shakespearean verbiage.
A virginal girlfriend.
A veteran casting agent who once had a fling with the late, great John Barrymore.
Bad reviews from New York critics.
And lots, lots more.
As playwright, Rudnick whose previous works include "Jeffrey," "Poor Little Lambs" and "The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told," has a gift for the gab - dry wit lacked with irony, firewater and gin. He has fun. We have fun. He laughs. We laugh.
Here, "I Hate Hamlet" finds him targeting movie stars, matinee idols, opening nights, casting agents, actor vs. agent mind games, virginity, sexual promiscuity, romantic obsession, bad actors, television actors, primetime shows that became overnight hits, newspapers, critics, overblown salaries, theatre vs. art, the New York stage, the Hollywood dream factory, monetary obsession, failed marriages, acting mentors, script pitch sessions, selling out and finally, losing sight of reality.
As befits a comedy of this nature, "I Hate Hamlet" is rife with the kind of cynicism and tilt Rudnick is famous for.
He's a savvy writer. His observations, sentences, chatter and one-liners are excited and juicy. He never loses sight of the playful subject matter or the happily drawn humor of the characters he chooses to parody. His dissection of the entertainment industry is dead-on, merciless fun. As is his grand and cocky giddyap toward art vs. crap.
Mounting "I Hate Hamlet" for the Music Theatre of Connecticut audience, Kevin Connors brings the right sense of inspiration and cynicism to the project, offset by wonderfully orchestrated dashes of flame, fantasy, farce and nostalgia. Directorially, it's all diced and spliced with the acerbic conviction and gait set forth by the playwright - inked and dotted from scene to scene and act to act with flavorful expectation, understanding and command.
As director, Connors knows how to build, frame and get a laugh without overreaching. It's a directorial feat that gives the production its unique freshness and irony that never once oversteps Rudnick's blueprint in favor of over-the-top schnocker influenced by tireless, repetitious melodrama. You'll find none of that here. It's all in jest peppered with bright, brash intention, persona and spotlight ham and pastiche.
"I Hate Hamlet" stars Constantine Pappas as Andrew, Dan O' Driscoll as John Barrymore, Elena Ramos Pascullo as Deirdre, Liliane Klein as Felica, Robert Anthony Jones as Gary and Jo Anne Parady as Lillian.
The cast - crackerjack, engaging and comically seasoned - grab hold of Rudnick's script and chew it up and spit it out with expertly drilled precision, confidence, snap and pop. All six are consistently entertaining, each possessing a comic style and artistic grandeur that complements that play's nostalgic roots, its icy banter, its fantasy, its eccentricity, its playful lore and its unabashed escapism.
There's also a splendid, rat-a-tat duel, choreographed by O'Driscoll for Act II that achieves an actor-audience dynamic of closeness and split-second timing that is full-on thrill and spill - and then some.
Photos of "I Hate Hamlet" courtesy of Alex Mongillo.