To be funny or not to be funny, that is the question for “I Hate Hamlet,” now at Bucks County Playhouse. Paul Rudnick’s play about a young actor with the jitters is no all-out laff-riot – in fact, some parts of it are bland. And the Playhouse production, too often failing to find the fun in all but the juiciest part, doesn’t help.
Maybe it was an off-night or an unreceptive audience (I sensed that we were a more-than-usual stone-faced crowd), and Rudnik’s 1991 play was feeling a little dated despite his addition of references to Netflix and Hulu in the interim. Marc Bruni’s production is amusing, for sure, but unremarkable in its telling of a popular young TV actor who gets the part of Hamlet in a production of the Shakespeare summer series in Central Park.
Bruni himself is a Broadway pro — he directs the hit musical “Beautiful,” the Carole King bio. Many other credits for this “I Hate Hamlet” have Broadway sheens: the Tony-winning Elizabeth Ashley plays the young actor’s agent; Tom Hewitt, in several Broadway musicals with 10 stints in “Chicago” is the standout here as the ghost of John Barrymore; Ben Fankhauser, playing the young actor, was in “Newsies”; Janine LaManna, as a real estate agent, has appeared in several Broadway musicals; and every designer is a Broadway name.
The plot involves an L.A. actor who wants a role more meaningful than the rookie TV doctor who’s brought him fame on a show that’s just been canceled. But Hamlet? That’s a high bar he’s unprepared to grasp. He has coincidentally rented the neoclassic apartment (Anna Louizos’ impressive set) that was once home to John Barrymore, one of the great all-time Hamlets.
“I hate Hamlet!” declares the young actor, scared of the part, his limited ability and the way a live audience will receive him. His girlfriend of eight months (Liz Holtan) eggs him on but frustrates him because she keeps their relationship platonic. His former TV director (Steve Sanpietro) flies in from Hollywood to poo-poo anything that has to do with theater. And then John Barrymore’s ghost shows up to try to make everything work right.
Tom Hewitt is that ghost and he makes the most of it — his lively performance in the show’s best-written role is also the best of the night. Hewitt’s character isn’t visible to all the players, only some of them (the script never makes clear why), and he exploits this, miming some of them when he’s invisible and pushing the plot onward when he isn’t. He also owns the show; the rest of the cast can’t match Hewitt’s timing or find the same comic sense in their lines.
Some moments shine: Barrymore and the young actor breaking into convincing swordplay, Barrymore showing his protégé the proper way to bow, and giving the speech that Hamlet uses to instruct a group of actors. Hewitt nails that speech in his delivery. Those are Shakespeare’s words and comedy or not, the best of the evening.
”I Hate Hamlet” runs through Dec. 1 at Bucks County Playhouse, 70 S. Main St., New Hope. 215-862-2121 or bcptheater.org.