What was it about the 1990s that inspired playwrights to make legendary (and troubled) actor John Barrymore a central figure in no fewer than four plays?
Was it the tragic romance of a superbly talented figure doomed to waste his gifts when the luxe life of Hollywood came calling?
Whatever the reason for the late 20th century surge of interest in Barrymore, the first and best of those works, Paul Rudnick’s “I Hate Hamlet,” opened Thursday evening at Urbana’s Station Theatre.
The playwright purportedly based the tale on his own experiences when he rented an apartment in New York that was believed to have been Barrymore’s residence decades earlier. Rudnick wrote about his close encounter with Barrymore’s essence, and how it inspired his play, in the preface to the published version and later in a piece for The New Yorker.
In the play, successful television actor Andrew Rally (Andrew Simek) has come to New York in search of the next challenge. He finds more than he imagined: an amazing apartment (the holy grail of life in the Big Apple), a pushy real-estate lady (who is also a psychic), a passionate young woman (who withholds what he desires most) and an offer to play the lead in “Hamlet” (for Joseph Papp’s Shakespeare in the Park).
The convergence of these people and events leads Andrew to a crisis of confidence that calls forth the ghost of the actor known as the “Great Profile,” John Barrymore. Who better to stiffen the spine of a young man daunted by the task of scaling the heights of the greatest acting role? Why not get romantic advice from a famous and oft-wed lover? It doesn’t take long for comedy to ensue when these elements combine.
As stage legends go, Rudnick’s play comes with a doozy.
In addition to needing someone who can reliably play one of the greatest, most assured actors of the past 120 years — no small task — “I Hate Hamlet” brings with it something akin to a curse visited upon the original production.
In the 1991 Broadway premiere, actor Nicol Williamson played Barrymore’s ghost in such an unstable, self-indulgent (some say drunken) manner that the original Andrew, Evan Handler, was injured in a staged fencing duel and quit the production. After Handler’s departure, Williamson became increasingly unhinged and began to give curtain speeches criticizing the professional theater community. It was front-page news in the New York Times, but briefly. The production folded after only 11 weeks.
The good news about the current production at the Station Theatre is that it appears to have no such cursed luck. Kevin Paul Wickart demonstrates comic finesse and subtlety as Barrymore. Wickart looks nothing like the great actor, and yet he offers a humorously convincing performance that grows in depth. After a wobbly opening scene, the charming cast of Simek, Misty Eve Martin, Madelyn Childress and Mary Rose Cottingham drive the narrative with increasing confidence.
As Andrew struggles to believe he can handle the challenging central role in “Hamlet,” a sleazy Hollywood producer undermines him and tries to lure him back to the big bucks of television. The producer, Gary Peter Lefkowitz (Jace Jamison), doesn’t “get” Shakespeare and warns Andrew that his efforts to be a “real actor” will damage his career prospects. As the self-obsessed Gary, Jamison gets his share of laughs, even as he questions Andrew’s choices.
“An actor,” says Gary, “that’s just some English guy who can’t get a series.” And Gary’s message strikes a chord with Andrew, who has his own concerns about Shakespeare.
It is difficult not to hear the playwright’s own less-than-charitable attitudes toward Shakespeare when Andrew goes on a rant to Barrymore: “Don’t you think if Shakespeare were around now, he’d be writing normally?”
Barrymore is aghast at Andrew’s suggestion that Shakespeare be rewritten in language more accessible to today’s audience. Andrew wants to adapt “to be or not to be” into “so with all this garbage in the world, why not just stab yourself?”
As this argument grows more heated, Barrymore produces two swords, and the actors engage in a duel that is cleverly staged by Danny Yoerges in the Station’s cramped space.
Director KT Burke has marshaled her forces well to keep Rudnick’s comedy humming along. Graham Louthan’s scenic design skillfully solves the requirements of the play within the difficult venue. Konrad Ciolkosz’s lighting creatively sets the production’s various moods and Sheri Doyle’s costumes provide an amusing dramatic tone.
It must be noted that Rudnick runs afoul of theater history when he has Andrew claim that Barrymore ran away from the stage after only 101 performances as “Hamlet.” Indeed, that was a record-setting number of performances in 1923.
After a vacation, Barrymore toured the United States as Hamlet, returned to New York the following fall and ultimately took his production to London, where it was a triumph in 1925.
But we’ll let Rudnick keep his dramatic license. For now.