By John Quinn
Some artists have a gift of finding inspiration in the most mundane of coincidence. In the case of playwright-novelist-screenwriter Paul Rudnick, renting the Greenwich Village apartment that had once been the home of actor John Barrymore led to a comic gem. “I Hate Hamlet,” which closes Tipping Point Theatre’s season, is light summer sweetness wrapped around a chewy center.
Hollywood heartthrob Andy Rally (Andrew Parker), star of TV’s “LA Medical,” is free to pursue other options when the series is canceled. Although plucked from drama school after only two years, he auditions and – mirabile dictu! – wins the title role in “Hamlet,” a production of the “Shakespeare in Central Park” festival. In an unlikely, but tantalizing coincidence, his tawdry real estate agent, Felicia (Vanessa Sawson), places him in the New York City brownstone that was once the haunt of John Barrymore, who arguably created the benchmark portrayal of the Prince of Denmark. “Haunt “is the operative word. Barrymore’s spirit returns, in Shakespearian regalia, to mentor the reluctant Andy in a role he thinks he is unworthy to attempt. Soon Andrew is on the horns of a dilemma. Does he play the part to please his virginal, Shakespeare-smitten girlfriend, Deirdre (Alysia Kolascz)? Will he affirm the faith his agent, Lillian Troy (Brenda Lane), has in his ability? Will he succumb to the dark side, pitched by his Hollywood pally, Gary Peter Lefkowitz (Ryan Carlson)? Or give up the “ars gratia artis” thingy and return to television in a vapid but lucrative series?
“I Hate Hamlet” isn’t a “new” play – it was written in 1991 – but it’s still a “they don’t write ’em like they used to” experience. Rudnick observes the very best of American comedy traditions, and thus the play is a timeless delight, a fantasy plot fleshed out with sparkling wit and unexpected twists. Much of the humor derives from the clash of high and low art, “glory” versus “celebrity” in a common culture caught in a great downward spiral. Lefkowitz insists, “Art isn’t something you DO, it’s something you BUY!” Does Shakespeare have a place in such a society?
Ultimately, “I Hate Hamlet” explores the level of self-confidence necessary to tackle insurmountable odds. Under the direction of James R. Kuhl, producing artistic director for Tipping Point Theatre, a beautifully balanced ensemble illuminates a young artist’s doubts. It should come as no surprise that Andrew Parker and his flamboyant mentor, played by Andrew Huff, enjoy a special onstage chemistry. This is especially note-worthy in a giddy rapier duel between Parker and Huff, choreographed by the local don of fight coordinators, Wayne David Parker. It’s a pleasure to watch their expressions as the apprentice captures his master’s enthusiasm.
Set designer Monika Essen and lighting designer Riga Girardi expertly render director Kuhl’s vision – a challenge indeed, because “I Hate Hamlet” is played in the round; it’s an intimate experience for artists and audience alike. Shelby Newport’s costumes are worth noting in the way they help define character – from agent Lillian’s tailored mauve with matching pumps to the clashing patterns and leather skirt worn by the less sophisticated Felicia. Not only does Barrymore’s Hamlet costume look dated, it looks a little shopworn.
If looking for summer diversion “as you like it,” as opposed to, say, a “winter’s tale,” “I Hate Hamlet” will not be a “love’s labor lost.” “Measure for measure,” it’s all comedy, no errors.
‘I Hate Hamlet’
Tipping Point Theatre, 361 E. Cady St., Northville. Thursday-Sunday through June 30, plus Wednesday, June 12. 2hours, 5 minutes. $27-32. 248-347-0003. http://www.tippingpointtheatre.com