Updated: Mar 25
“Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.” - Shakespeare
"I love this apartment because it's like a stage set — it's like the theater," says Andrew Rally, a young bicoastal actor who has taken up new digs in Greenwich Village to play Hamlet in a free, "Shakespeare in the Park"-style production.
And no wonder. Andy's new flat is the extravagantly Gothic apartment long ago occupied by John Barrymore (a portrait still hangs over the fireplace in his much younger heyday), and even now remains a suitably regal throne room for any show-business prince, past, present or still aspiring.
Since Andrew (David Rodriguez; “Bonnie & Clyde”) is about to assume Barrymore's most celebrated Shakespearean role in a Joseph Papp production in Central Park, what is to stand in the way of his complete artistic fulfillment? Only one thing. Much as Andy loves his apartment, loves the theater and loves stardom…he hates Hamlet.
"I Hate Hamlet," a two-act comedy by Paul Rudnick, a show that tears a page from Noel Coward’s legendary “Blithe Spirit,” is currently playing at the Newport Theatre Arts Center, Newport Beach, through March 6th. The show is an unapologetically silly and at times hilarious tale of how Andy rises above his fear and loathing of the role people ritualistically refer to as "the greatest in the English-speaking world." To do so, he must seek the help of Barrymore himself, who comes back from the grave to give his young would-be successor instructions in Shakespearean acting, not to mention life and love.
Don't ask how and why Barrymore rises from the dead — Mr. Rudnick's seance was not exactly textbook — but do be cheered by the news that the ghost is played by Eldon Callaway, who you may have caught in the classic play, “12 Angry Men,” or perhaps spent an afternoon reading his action-thriller novel, “The Quarter Year Man.” Possibly as jaunty and debonair offstage as Barrymore was onstage, Mr. Callaway offers a riotous incarnation of the renowned actor, lecher and lush (not necessarily in that order) whom even death has failed to slow down.
Mr. Callaway’s impression of the legend offers plenty of laughs from the moment he enters in full Hamlet regalia and makes a beeline, as if pulled by a magnet, to the nearest uncorked Champagne bottle, all the while satirizing greedy realtors, vacuous Hollywood producers, pretentious actresses, or hard-drinking actors. Rudnick, a wisecracking playwright whose other claims to fame include the play, "Poor Little Lambs" and the novel "Social Disease," quickly gives his star some high-flying bouts of drunken hamming worthy of his lore. Perhaps you’ve caught Peter O'Toole in "My Favorite Year?" Quite similar.
Rudnick wrote "I Hate Hamlet" back in the early ‘90s, while actually living in the New York apartment where actor John Barrymore — Drew Barrymore's grandfather — lived in the 1920s, just before he began performing his legendary Hamlet uptown. The place provided strong inspiration, trekking up four steep flights, with walls of rough stucco, and a spooky, odd-shaped niche high in the wall, used for a candle or a skull.
When Eldon Callaway’s Barrymore instructs his young protege on the art of the curtain call, he demonstrates how to milk the crowd with a cynical yet rousing bravura that would have impressed any audience. His woozy swoons, bombastic braggadocio and swashbuckling sexual antics are so eerily reminiscent of Barrymore himself in his self-parodistic decline that Mr. Callaway creates the illusion of bearing much more of a physical resemblance to his celebrated prototype than he actually does.
Director Floyd Harden, teaming with Producer/Scenic Designer Jim Huffman (along with Leslye Wanthal), has added to that nostalgic mood with an authentic-looking apartment set representing Barrymore’s vintage roots. The Lighting by Josh Serrano — at times very tricky with the window lightning — is also expert, as is the Sound by Brian Page. Costume Design by Tom Phillips and Larry Watts is exemplary; Props by Marty Miller and Kathi Cervantes; Fight Choreography by David Rodriguez; Fencing Consultant is Eldon Callaway; Stage Management by Keith Gardner.
And, for further period flavor, Mary Price Moore (“A Piece of My Heart”), plays Andrew’s agent whose own career dates back as a one-time Barrymore flame. Her reunion with her deceased paramour gives the evening an all-too-brief dash of rueful Lubitsch romantic fantasy.
Victoria Leigh Serra (“Floyd Collins”) as an eccentric New York real estate woman named Felicia, who has "an almost carnal passion for Manhattan apartments," convinces Rally to rent the old Barrymore brownstone. Later, she conducts a seance to conjure up the shnockered poltergeist — a success, but with a delayed reaction. Remarkably, no one who could actually see Barrymore, including Andrew, thought it not that out of the ordinary to do so. Perhaps Andrew was preoccupied with other matters. Perhaps he was simply sexually frustrated. His girlfriend, Deirdre (Kayla Agnew; “Into The Woods”), after all, had been refusing to have sex before they are married, but here's the problem: she will not marry him.
Next we meet Gary Peter Lefkowitz (Cody Aaron Hanify; ”A Midsummer Night’s Dream”), the ambitious, fast-talking and superficial "writer-producer-director" who tries to recruit Andrew for his next television project, while disparaging theatrical acting as boring and pretentious. When Gary leaves, Barrymore tells Andrew that the money and fame he would get from the TV show are not worth what he would lose in glory. But the more Barrymore tries to convince Andrew that he could be a talented actor, the more Andrew resists, leading to a sword duel between the two. When he is slightly injured, Andrew’s aggression grows, and he begins to feel that they are now on equal footing and that he is ready to perform Hamlet.
This is a witty, rakish, stylish tribute to all actors in general, utterly entertaining, with laugh out loud moments. A little mystery, some comedy, not too heavy, not too light, but just about right for almost everyone.
Callaway's Barrymore is a charming rogue—a lover, a drunk, an artist. True to the actual career of John Barrymore, he is both a superb actor and a miserable failure. He has been through poverty and riches, critical success and the jeers that haunt a sellout. As he explains when Andrew questions him about the years of his life that he spent away from the stage, "I faced the dragon." With all of these contradictions driving him, there is one fact that makes Barrymore such a prize role for any actor: he is noble. He has a sense of grandeur that one associates with the Shakespearean stage, with a desire to pass on his craft to another deserving protean artist. This is the true reason for his visit to Andrew.
He can duel with Andrew or seduce Deirdre, and audiences still look up to him. He is otherworldly. And, even though Rudnick is consistently on the lookout for ways in which the play might subvert your every expectation, audiences still leave the play feeling that Andrew will be a better man for devoting his life to understanding Hamlet, and for having Barrymore as his mentor..."Alas! Poor Ghost!"
NEWPORT THEATRE ARTS CENTER, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach, proudly presents “I HATE HAMLET,” Now Playing, from February 18th through March 6th. NDirected by Floyd Harden, Produced by Jim Huffman.
WITH: ELDON CALLAWAY as John Barrymore; VICTORIA LEIGH SERRA as Felicia Dantine; DAVID RODRIGUEZ as Andrew Rally; KAYLA AGNEW as Deirdre McDavey; MARY PRICE MOORE as Lillian Troy; and CODY AARON HANIFY as Gary Peter Lefkowitz.
For ticket information, performance dates and reservations, please visit https://ntaconline.com/
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report