SALT LAKE CITY — Producing a lesser known comedy poking fun at theatre might seem like a gamble, but Pioneer Theatre Company’s production of I Hate Hamlet by Paul Rudnick is a sure bet. This rollicking chain of unlikely events full of farcical fun and populated by over-the-top characters is a genuine pleasure to watch.
It is the early 1990’s, and young TV actor Andrew Rally (ably played by Ben Rosenbaum) has just relocated from L.A. to New York after his time as a heart-throb doctor on a now-canceled medical drama. He is about to embark on the “role of a lifetime,” something that will either legitimize his career as a serious actor or side track him from a possible meteoric rise as a TV star: playing Hamlet in Central Park. Fate has apparently intervened in the form of Andrew’s gregarious broker, Felicia Dantine (a delightful Nell Gwynn), who has found him a magnificent Greenwich Village apartment that once belonged to the one and only John Barrymore, who is famous for boozing, womanizing, and playing Hamlet. Andrew is overwhelmed not just by the sheer responsibility of playing the iconic role, but the excitement of those around him. Andrew’s virtuous and slightly kooky actress girlfriend Deidre, his venerable chain smoking German emigree agent Lillian, and the aforementioned Felicia are almost too much to handle in an opening scene…and then they have a seance.
Barrymore himself does appear, but less because of the seance and more as mentor to the TV actor turned thespian. As the ghost of John Barrymore, J. Paul Boehmer is outstanding. Not only can he match Barrymore’s “Great Profile” moniker, but he swaggers, staggers, seduces, and sword fights slightly drunkenly into one’s heart. Here is a role that asks an actor to be overtly theatrical, and Boehmer never disappoints. He is magnificently obnoxious while remaining noble, delivers the play’s best one liners, and seemingly stops time with a moving portrayal of Hamlet’s instructions to the players. Boehmer is the anchor, but he is supported by a stellar ensemble guided by the deft direction of Art Manke.
Rosenbaum aptly captures Andrew at a crossroads: does he pick art or does he pick fame? Barrymore takes Andrew under his surprisingly corporeal wing and endeavors to make him worthy of playing the great Dane despite Andrew’s own distaste for the play. Rosenbaum is endearing and eager, yet never desperate. He is able to show Andrew’s complete journey with authenticity and hold his own against the titan Boehmer brings to life. Alyssa Gagarin as the virginal Deidre strikes the right balance between eccentric emerging artist and damsel without becoming cloying. Gagarin and Rosenbaum have a great chemistry that feeds the humor in the scenes where Deidre eschews Andrew’s advances.
Sybil Lines gives the aging Lillian wonderful energy and snark that contrasts nicely with the youthful glee with which Lillian shares the details of her long ago “fling” with Barrymore in the very apartment Andrew now resides. Matching Boehmer’s excellent comic turn are Todd Cerveris as Gary and Utah’s own Nell Gwynn as Felicia. Felicia and Gary are the play’s most overtly stereotypical comic characters, which could go wrong in the hands of lesser performers, but these two almost steal the show. Gwynn makes Felicia broad and brash, yet lovable in her ignorance about Shakespeare. Cerveris is especially good as Gary, Andrew’s cocksure “hyphenate” friend from Los Angeles. Gary is a writer-director-producer bent on getting Andrew out of this Shakespeare gig and into a sure-fire superhero TV series. Gary is admirably sleazy, greedy, driven, and shallow. Rudnick’s script smartly asks the difficult question of what matters more: making art or making money? Gary answers with “You don’t do art, you buy it.”
The show is equally supported by the design elements. Both the 1990’s and fabulous Shakespearean garb are lovingly brought to life by costume designer David Kay Mickelsen and hair and make-up designer Amanda French. The set design by Tom Buderwitz beautifully recreates the seemingly medieval grandness of this space once inhabited by theatrical royalty. Buderwitz’s version is monumental, opulent, and almost stretches credulity. Yet, it is exactly the kind of set I Hate Hamlet needs. Lighting by Paul Miller effortlessly creates both realism and glorious nods to the supernatural events orchestrated by Barrymore. Sound design by Joshua C. Hight further supports the creation of this world. While all elements are excellent, two things stand out: the amazing rain effect against the massive bay window, and the absolutely enchanting fireplace scene between Boehmer and Rosenbaum.
With tongue firmly planted in cheek, the cast combined with Manke’s direction effectively exploit all things theatre while paying homage to the “magic” thereof. Banter, Shakespeare, thwarted advances, a ghost, comic characters, and a spectacular sword fight (well choreographed by Christopher DuVal) all celebrate the best parts of live performance, but this show never takes itself too seriously. There are moments when the farcical nature overshadows the actual humor, but overall it is like all the best parts of a Mel Brooks movie in one place. It is a little bawdy, clever without being pretentious, irreverent, and a lot of fun.