Between relatively mundane courses, Copper State Dinner Theatre is serving up a delectable comedy called I Hate Hamlet. This amusing morsel had a colorful run on Broadway in 1991 for 80 performances, but is remembered mainly for the disgraceful behavior of Nicol Williamson. Playing the role of John Barrymore to the hilt, Williamson got so carried away during a stage duel that he skewered his co-star Evan Handler in the butt with his sword, causing Handler to stalk offstage indignantly, never to return.

No such mishap occurs at Max's Dinner Theatre in Glendale, where the Valley's premier farceur Peter J. Hill has directed a hilarious production.

I Hate Hamlet was written by Paul Rudnick, best known for his rollicking comedy Jeffrey, about safe sex in our dangerous age, which can be seen on-screen at Valley Art Theatre in Tempe.

The delicious situation of I Hate Hamlet is that a television actor named Andy Rally has been offered the opportunity to play Hamlet for New York's Shakespeare in the Park.

Fresh from L.A., where he has achieved fame as Dr. Jim Corben on a hit television series that has been canceled after five seasons, Andy is ushered into a fantastic apartment. The place was once inhabited by the late John Barrymore, the renowned drunk who made his mark as the greatest American Hamlet of his day. A crass real estate agent named Felicia hopes to make a killing in commissions from the rental of this white elephant, and Andy seems to offer the perfect opportunity. "Just think," she tells him, "someday people will say Andrew Rally lived here--a great Hamlet."

Andy's silver-haired New York agent Lillian recognizes the Gothic furnishings at once. She once had a dalliance with Barrymore in this very room when she was an innocent young girl.

Against his better judgment, Andy agrees to take the apartment, although he continues to doubt the wisdom of attempting Hamlet. His virginal girlfriend Diedre helps him to make the commitment, since she has withheld her sexual favors until he becomes an artist. Andy hopes his artistic success might lead her to the sexual consummation he so devoutly wishes for.

Providing the counterpoint to these lofty artistic impulses is Andy's Hollywood agent, Gary Lefkowitz. He's come up with a $3 million advance for Andy to do a new television series. Introducing himself to Felicia, Gary offers his hand: "An actor's agent--the scum of the Earth." Not to be outdone, Felicia counters: "Real estate agent. I win."

Gary tries to dissuade Andy from Hamlet. A delightful Philistine, Gary confesses he has little regard for art. "Television is art perfected; you don't have to pay attention. When I go to the theatre, half the time I'm trying to figure out which is my armrest."

Trying to get Andy to see reason, Gary says, "You're no actor. What's an actor? Some English guy who can't get a series."

Struggling with the dilemma, Andy pops the cork of a bottle of champagne. Suddenly, the door to the terrace swings open and through a billow of fog emerges a dark figure in doublet and hose. The famous profile is instantly recognizable. It is the ghost of Barrymore himself, still attired as the melancholy Dane. "Am I dead," Barrymore ponders, "or just incredibly drunk?"

Barrymore's presence becomes a powerful antidote to the lure of Hollywood. Begging Barrymore to share with him some secret for playing Hamlet, Andy is treated to a lovely rendition of "Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue." The moment is sublime, twisting the light comedic banter into the simple eloquence of acting.

Hill's production is impeccable, once we are past the first ten minutes when the actors overplay to signal the audience that this will be a comedy. Fortunately, the performances of the three central men are so grounded and believable, the excesses are soon forgotten.

Rusty Ferracane is modest and understated in the central part of Andy, the personification of tortured shallowness. Ross Collins is a quivering mass of vulgarity as the Hollywood agent, delivering hugely satiric laughs with a deadpan that belies any intentional humor.

Best of all is Mel Reid as the legendary Barrymore. In his performance, we glimpse the matinee idol simmering beneath the ham and the faint suggestion of a great talent.

Noel Irick is sexy as Lillian, the mature agent with the Marlene Dietrich accent, and Dina Kurbat is convincingly virginal as Andy's abstinent girlfriend.

The biggest drawback of the production is that the limited stage fails to evoke the visual grandeur of a faded den of seduction. The vaulted ceilings must remain in our imagination. Nevertheless, I Hate Hamlet is loads of fun and says a great deal about the decline of theatre and the ubiquity of television. The spoof of Hamlet and the send-up of sexual repression make a satisfying souffl of light humor.


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