The comedy I Hate Hamlet opened at the Bucks County Playhouse on Nov. 9, and it’s a coming home in a sense for playwright Paul Rudnick.
“I went there as a kid with my family, and it is my first memory of attending the theater,” Rudnick said. “This cast is just terrific, and when I worked with the amazing director Mark Bruni to update the script, we were both happy that it has held up quite well since it debuted on Broadway in 1991.”
The plot centers around Andrew Rally (née
Rallenberg), the hot star of a recently canceled TV series, who arrives in New York to play Hamlet and settles into the Greenwich Village apartment once owned by John Barrymore. While Andy loves the city, the theater and stardom, he hates Hamlet. He is ready to flee to Los Angeles when the ghost of Barrymore unexpectedly appears and begins tutoring his would-be successor in Shakespearean acting, life and love.
“It was probably the first play to be inspired by real estate. I was going to look at an apartment that was listed as a ‘medieval duplex.’ I couldn’t imagine what that meant, but I had to see it. Was there a turret? Suits of armor? A dungeon? Well, as it turned out, it was just wonderful — the best of old New York architecture,” Rudnick said. “It had been John Barrymore’s apartment when he played Hamlet.
“There was even an ‘alchemist’s corner’ which Barrymore had created — it was the perfect writer’s retreat. We had séances there to try to contact Barrymore; whether we succeeded is unclear, but there is some evidence that we may have.”
The séance scene shows up in the play, which runs at the theater until Dec. 1.
The character Lillian Troy, played by Tony Award-winning actress Elizabeth Ashley, is based on Rudnick’s agent then.
“After I moved into the apartment, my agent asked me if I had found her hairpins,” Rudnick said. “I had no idea what she was talking about. Turns out she had had an affair with Barrymore’s son-in-law.”
When asked to connect his Jewish background to his work, Rudnick is effusive: “I was raised in a family where humor was prized over any other quality. I recall family holidays, which provided raucous lessons in comedy. My mother and her two sisters had a comic rhythm that was amazing. We were a family of teachers and librarians, so we embraced the Jewish tradition that cherishes learning and culture. There was always a huge emphasis on ‘This in my background,’ and I am so grateful. It was wonderful to be able to show my parents my work and have them appreciate it.”
Broadway’s Ben Fankhauser, who launched his career starring as Davy in Newsies, brings a uniquely Jewish perspective to the role of Andrew.
“First of all, Andrew is obviously Jewish — he changed his name to be more mainstream. When I play a role like this, I definitely experience a deep connection to the character. It is not a stretch for me to play a character that has a little bit of neurosis, who has that look, that type, that Jewish sensibility. I bring an authenticity and an additional layer of understanding to these types of parts. I had a bubbe, I went to temple, I get it.”
Fankhauser relishes the play, which he describes as a screwball comedy, but with a lot more to offer audiences.
“First of all, it’s hilarious. Andy thinks he’s going crazy because no one else can see the ghost, so there are all sorts of funny scenes involving that plotline. But the play goes far deeper than that,” he said. “There is a really interesting dynamic between the Barrymore character and Andy, a father/son/mentor relationship, where Barrymore takes Andy under his wing. It’s sweet. The play also explores the themes of true art, respect for theater, appreciation for creativity, and love.”
Fankhauser comes to show business honestly. His great- grandparents were in Yiddish theater. His grandfather played the violin. He was active in theater from a young age.
“I got the bug. I was in any show I could get my hands on — school, community theater, the temple. I was pretty much obsessed.”
Although he has done musical theater, Fankhauser now prefers straightforward acting.
“Davy launched me. And I identify with him. He was a nice Jewish boy from the Lower East Side who banded together the newsboys to form a union. And the role was fun — singing and dancing — but it is also physically demanding, hard work. I was younger then!” he said.
“Now, I really like digging deeper into a character, which a play like I Hate Hamlet enables me to do. In a musical, there is less complexity because the performance is interspersed with 10 song-and-dance numbers.”
Keri White is a freelance writer and also is a Jewish Exponent food columnist.