When Harry Gadbow is on stage, you know you’re at the theater. He plays the ghost of an aged, alcoholic John Barrymore, a role of delicious silliness that would coax any actor to hamminess in the extreme. The ghost has returned to his New York City apartment to help its new resident, a young TV actor, prepare for the part of Hamlet on stage. While Paul Rudnick’s play is rather a collection of well-timed, witty zingers than a proper piece of dramatic structure, the conceit is enjoyable.
If, that is, you have the right actor. When I Hate Hamlet opened on Broadway, Kevin Kline played the melodramatic ghost, and there are some people (me among them) who could watch with joy as Kevin Kline read a health insurance po-licy. His success in the role was a no-brainer and was the only thing that kept the thin play afloat.
Now MCT has taken on the play, and director Kim Kempfert has done an admirable job with her light and airy production. She keeps the actors on their toes and moves the show quickly through its paces (a congratulatory note: She bucks temptation and doesn’t overuse the stairs and balcony of Laura Blaker’s set). Her bright, lively casting holds our attention. In Gadbow, she has summoned the spirit of Kline, and he explodes across the stage with fabulous over-acting. He shrinks not from fencing, seducing women or bounding over the furniture and stairs.
Andrew, the TV actor, played by Patrick Walrath, has just quit a lucrative show to do a prestigious production of Hamlet in New York. He has a pushy realtor, a wise old agent and a bouncy girlfriend who won’t sleep with him. He also has a Hollywood friend who tries to tempt him back to L.A. with the promise of a great deal of money. Everyone wants something of him, and, like Hamlet (duh), he stands rooted with indecision.
Walrath strikes the right note of dull success. As the flamboyant realtor, Becky Hindley acts kooky. Kelly McCool as the girlfriend who won’t sleep with Andrew is tireless with pep-band enthusiasm; Patricia Chapman has some lovely moments as the reflective agent; Louis Stein camps it up big time with his performance as the slick Hollywood friend. One of the best moments in the show is his response to Andrew’s “No,” when asked if he’ll come back to Hollywood. “No, as in yes but I need more money?” he asks, incapable of understanding a context beyond the hills of Hollywood. Each of these characters is a type with a capital “T,” big cardboard representations. Only Barrymore has much to say, and Gadbow delivers his words with surprising authenticity, even as he is the funniest actor in the show.
The problem with the play is that it is essentially the same punchline repeated ad nauseam, and it adds nothing to the form. Most of the dialogue is labored and tedious, backtracking over facts established earlier. The characters sound a single note and they do it over and over. Most of the first act concerns itself with exclamations at Barrymore’s apartment (a grand, dungeon-y Medieval Spanish look from Blaker) and wondering if there’s a ghost. Something like that should take only a few swift moments to establish and then move on, but Rudnick seems to get stuck in the mud, and the play advances only a few yards.
Barrymore, for the sake of the art and the craft, must convince Andrew to take the stage role and educate him in the importance of theater. In black tights and tunic, Gadbow thrives on the role, as any actor would. It’s an irresistible part, not simply because it is the only interesting one. Gadbow throws himself around with melodramatic abandon and commands the theater with a beautiful voice of such depth the other actors could drown in it. Conjuring Barrymore, Gadbow draws his audience onto his stage, and Barrymore draws us into his dilemma. He is the roguish response to Norma Desmond, the incarnate alarum of theater. Even though he has only a slight and insignificant actor before him, really more of a TV face than an actor (the character of Andrew, not Walrath the actor), Barrymore launches a campaign that no one could defy.
I Hate Hamlet is perfect for MCT because it highlights one of the company’s tremendous assets: over-acting, and I mean this as a compliment, as a tribute to artifice and character work. In Greater Tuna, for example, or Pump Boys and Dinettes, the actors played costumes more than parts, and they inhabited those exaggerated costumes with gleeful cheer and a sense of mischievous fun that make you feel like you’re watching your grandchildren put on a skit after dinner. You love it, your heart fills with cozy happiness and you come away with a good feeling that carries you into the following day, even if you can’t remember why.
The role of Barrymore is delightful and unessential, a triviality meant to lighten a moment. Gadbow has all the best lines in the show and he delivers them with seasoned aplomb. For his antic energy and earnest, visible pleasure, we owe him a debt of thanks. In this dour time of ominous conflict, he spreads out his arms with an encompassing embrace, he makes us laugh and makes us happy. We owe him for taking us to the theater where we can suspend, for a moment, all reality.