As its title suggests, Paul Rudnick’s 1991 play I Hate Hamlet deals with the question of just how relevant William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is for modern audiences. The play centers around a young actor who has just earned fame and fortune on a television show about doctors and is apprehensive about returning to New York to play Hamlet in the prestigious Shakespeare in Central Park festival. To add to his insecurities, his realtor has rented him an apartment once inhabited by John Barrymore, who many consider to have given one of the greatest performances of Hamlet in the twentieth century. A séance brings the ghost of John Barrymore back to the apartment where he once lived. Barrymore offers guidance to the young actor, who has to decide between the easy money that he could make with a new television series and the confidence to be gained by facing the world’s most difficult acting challenge. Rudnick fills the play with laughs, as he lightly satirizes greedy realtors, vacuous Hollywood producers, pretentious but well-meaning actresses, and hard-drinking, womanizing actors.
I Hate Hamlet opened on Broadway on April 8, 1991, at the Walter Kerr theater. In its initial run, Nicol Williamson, playing the ghost of John Barrymore, immersed himself into his part, channeling the famous rogue with such fury that he once hurt another actor during an onstage duel, causing an understudy to step in for act 2. Since its initial run, the play has been a favorite for small theaters, enjoyed for its wit and its reflection on the actor’s art in the modern, commercialized world.
I Hate Hamlet begins with Andrew Rally—a young actor who has just gained national fame for his part in a cancelled mediocre television program called “LA Medical”—moving into his new apartment in an imposing brownstone in New York City. The apartment is large and gothic, not the sort of place where Andrew imagines himself living, but his real estate agent, Felicia Dantine, explains that she rented it for him because legendary actor John Barrymore once lived there, and she assumed that Andrew would find the connection with Barrymore to be “a match.” Felicia approves of Andrew’s commercial success, but Andrew is embarrassed about it. They are soon joined by Deirdre McDavey, who has been Andrew’s girlfriend since the days when he was a struggling New York actor, and Lillian Troy, Andrew’s agent. Lillian has been in the apartment before, years ago, when she had an affair with Barrymore. She blithely asks Andrew if he has found her hairpins.
When Andrew announces that he has been offered the part of Hamlet, which was considered Barrymore’s most artistic achievement as an actor, Deirdre suggests that they should try to contact the famed actor’s spirit. Felicia says that she has psychic ability and has contacted her dead mother in the past. During the ensuing séance, Felicia talks to her mother, who recognizes Andrew Rally from “LA Medical,” but Andrew is hesitant about soliciting acting advice from Barrymore because, he says, “I hate Hamlet.” When he says this, thunder rises; a shadow of a handsome profile, which was Barrymore’s trademark feature, is cast on the wall in a lightning flash, but only Andrew sees it.
The séance is called off and considered a failure, with Felicia explaining that they do not seem to have anything Barrymore would want, to lure him to them. Lillian and Felicia leave, but not before Lillian finds one of the hairpins she lost in the apartment decades earlier. Andrew tells Deirdre that he has been apprehensive about his ability to play Hamlet, saying that he is more comfortable with easy acting roles, such as his television work, but Deirdre is romantically attracted to the Shakespearean theater. She agrees to stay at the apartment that night but refuses to have sex with Andrew, saving herself for marriage but rebuffing his proposal of marriage. Frustrated and feeling inadequate, Andrew phones Lillian, leaving a...
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