The Dramatic History of the Comedy “I Hate Hamlet”

i hate hamlet sliderBWalk down any crooked street in New York City’s Greenwich Village, and you will stumble upon a variety of historical placards mounted to random townhouses celebrating their past creative inhabitants: “Edgar Allen Poe wrote ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ here” (85 W 3rd Street) or “Thomas Paine died here’” (59 Grove Street). This particular neighborhood brims with artistic ghosts, and that is exactly what inspired Paul Rudnick to write his comedic play, “I Hate Hamlet.”

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John Barrymore’s residence, NYC

Rudnick’s muse is legendary actor John Barrymore, who occupied the penthouse of 132 West 4th Street in 1917. The playwright leased the space 70 years later, admittedly becoming more and more fascinated by Barrymore’s history with the apartment. As he wrote in The New Yorker in 2007, “The more I absorbed, and the more months I spent under Barrymore’s bastard Jacobean roof, the more I felt moved to write something set at the address. Someone or something had led me to these quarters and would not be denied.” Enter the characters of television actor Andrew Rally and the ghost of John Barrymore.

While it is significantly Shakespearean to introduce a ghost-haunting to a story – especially one revolving around playing the role of Hamlet – the spirit of John Barrymore is not one to utter a vague command and then disappear, trusting that his charge will be carried out. No. John Barrymore will always plot to steal the spotlight, even from the afterlife. And while he does not task Andrew Rally with avenging his death, per se, he does prompt the character to carry on his legacy by playing Hamlet. Or rather, by playing Hamlet well.

John Barrymore, the play's inspiration Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

John Barrymore,
the play’s inspiration
Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

“Andrew, who is Hamlet? A star,” says John Barrymore in the play. “The role is a challenge, but far more—an opportunity. To shine. To rule. To seduce. To wit— what makes a star?”

The banter between modern day actor and acting legend ghost is endless, and one can imagine Paul Rudnick carrying out similar conversations while wandering through Barrymore’s New York apartment. For Intrepid’s part, Fran Gercke will be giving voice to Andrew Rally, while Ruff Yeager will step into the role of John Barrymore. The two will be joined by the powerhouse talents of Dagmar Fields, Brooke McCormick Paul, Gerilyn Brault and Tom Stephenson.

While Ruff Yeager adds a very specific dramatic flair to the role of Barrymore, the part of the legendary actor has historically been difficult to cast. As Rudnick explained it when discussing his own Broadway opening of the show, “The audience needed to believe that whoever played Barrymore, from the instant he stepped onstage, was an Olympian Hamlet, a devastating seducer, and everyone’s favorite scoundrel.” Unfortunately for Rudnick’s production, this meant employing a notoriously ill-behaved British actor named Nicol Williamson. Despite Williamson’s dramatic similarities to the theatrical icon he would be playing, the actor’s catastrophic temperament eventually upstaged his own acting credentials. The play closed after a one-month run in a cloud of scandal.

The New Yorker captures the rocky Broadway debut of "I Hate Hamlet"

The New Yorker captures the rocky Broadway debut of “I Hate Hamlet”

“I had never spent time around a world-class, drain-the-keg loon before,” writes Rudnick, after detailing an account of Williamson physically striking the actor playing Andrew with a sword during a sequence of onstage dueling. That actor not only immediately left the stage, but also the entire production. It was the last in a series of already unbelievable events, that included, among other things, midnight phone calls demanding script revisions and entirely missed performances.

While Intrepid anticipates that its summer season opener will no doubt be riddled with noteworthy behind-the-scenes stories, it is safe to say that the drama on the stage will be enough entertainment for any audience. – Tiffany Tang

“I Hate Hamlet” previews June 27 and runs through July 19.
Tickets on sale now.