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Cruel to Be Kind

by John Rodat on February 4, 2010

I Hate Hamlet
Confetti Stage, Albany Masonic Hall, Jan. 29

In the same week that I saw Confetti Stage’s version of Paul Rudnick’s play I Hate Hamlet, the playwright had a piece published in The New Yorker. Rudnick wrote a parodic internal memo in response to a newspaper report that the Disney company is “re-imagining” its iconic mascot in a new video game. In Rudnick’s gag, Disney is willing to go to surprising lengths with its update. Just a few examples:

“In the Brokeback Mickey flashback, when Mickey makes tender love to Donald Duck, let’s have Mickey murmur, ‘Leave the little sailor hat on.’ ”

“Once Mickey is in the maximum-security prison, how about if he gets a crude tattoo of Jesus wearing the white gloves?”

“Let’s have Minnie appear on The Real Housewives of Disney along with Cinderella, Snow White, and the Little Mermaid. Then Minnie could sneer, ‘Do any of you bitches not have a gay husband?’ ”

Much as I wish to claim it, I am not making any of this up.

Rudnick, by the way, also is the writer of the movie Addams Family Values, which—as pointed out in an Entertainment Weekly interview—managed to sneak incest, S&M and masturbation jokes into a movie rated PG-13.

So, point is, Rudnick is willing to “go there.”

The Confetti Stage players, I think, are less willing. As source material, I Hate Hamlet is nowhere near so risqué as the aforementioned bits, but Rudnick’s campy characters—really almost caricatures—do evidence his freewheeling, cavalier, even flippant attitude.

I Hate Hamlet tells the story of actor Andrew Rally (Chuck Conroy), a recognizable TV actor whose show has been canceled. Andrew relocates from L.A. to New York, where he lands the role of Hamlet in a public-theater production at the same time he discovers he is wanted back in Hollywood for a far more lucrative and far less demanding TV gig. His choice is complicated by the competing opinions of his girlfriend, Deirdre McDavery (Heather Pielli), his agent, Lilian Troy (Mary Rutnik-Pekins), his producer pal, Gary Peter Lefkowitz (Isaac Newberry), and the ghost of legendary actor John Barrymore (Robert Francis Forgett), whose apartment Rally rented from real-estate agent Felicia Dantine (Daniela Malave).

Essentially—and ideally—it’s a kind of Pinocchio story with the part of Jiminy Cricket played by a drunken, grandiose egomaniac in stockings. (It’s worth noting that in its first performances in New York City, the part of Barrymore was played by famed stage loon Nicol Williamson, and that his costar quit and considered legal action against the production for Williamson’s insane abuse.) But the Confetti Stage leads, Forgett and Conroy, play Barrymore and Rally as if we’re supposed to like them, which I think misses the point and much of the impact. These are not deep, nuanced characters. They are punchline-delivery vehicles, and jokes in themselves.

Fortunately, a couple of the actors seemed in on this: Malave’s Drescher-esque Noo Yawker was fun and spirited; and, the high point of the show, Newberry, as the unapologetically crass writer-director-producer Gary Peter Lefkowitz, performed the role with perfect voice and gesture. He neither overplayed the humor nor treated his character more gently than Rudnick intended. Look for this guy in the future.

Perhaps these, as supporting roles, were the easier performances. But both had just had the right tone, and provided most of the evening’s not-infrequent laughs.

Admittedly, Forgett and Conroy had the harder slogs and were still competent enough to deliver the laugh lines serviceably. But even setting aside opening night clunkers (and there were several, including a truly unfortunate flub of Hamlet’s soliloquy), neither evinced quite the right insane ego (they’re portraying actors, after all) to really capture the sharpness—a kind of fond cruelty—of Rudnick’s regard.