Out actor Lawrence Arrigale, director Mariangela Saavedra and playwright Paul Rudnick at Allens Lane Theater, for a start
Before Paul Rudnick became both a critics’ choice and the gay voice of a generation, the young Rudnick wrote hilarious novels (“Social Disease,” and “I’ll Take It”) and a quietly quirky play (“Poor Little Lambs,” about a female Yale student joining the Whiffenpoofs, an all-male singing group.)
Then he wrote “I Hate Hamlet.”
Based on Rudnick’s good fortune of moving into the top floor of a Greenwich Village brownstone that was once home to the legendary actor John Barrymore, “I Hate Hamlet” introduces a zealous soap-opera star ready to take a leap onto the dramatic stage by playing Shakespeare’s tragic hero. When the flamboyant ghost of Barrymore catches wind of this (and the television star’s palpable disgust at the role), he pounces upon the young actor, both haunting and taunting him mercilessly.
Allens Lane Art Center in Mt. Airy launches “I Hate Hamlet” May 11-20. Mariangela Saavedra, in just one of the roles she inhabits at the 65-year-old center, is directing the play.
She cited Rudnick’s early comedy as an example of a lesser-known piece from a playwright who is fairly well known.
“Then there’s the show’s checkered past on Broadway,” recalled Saavedra of the personal animosity between its Hamlet (Nicol Wiliamson) and the actor playing the television star (Evan Handler) in 1991. “It closed early after the lead actor playing Barrymore was in fact an alcoholic, took liberties with the fight choreography and actually injured his cast mate. They refused to be on stage with him anymore. I think this show didn’t get its day in front of more audiences because of that.”
“Hamlet” aside, Saavedra’s penchant for Rudnick stemmed from the playwright’s feel for familiarity: “He writes about people and situations that I have lived through, and feel deeply connected to.” When Saavedra first read “Jeffery,” she said “it was like reading my step-brother’s life in a script.”
The director touched upon how the language and laugh lines of “I Hate Hamlet” (late ’80s) and “Jeffrey” (early ’90s and set against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis) hold up. “Rudnick wrote the screenplay for ‘In & Out,’ which is still by far one of my favorite movies about living your best life and being true to yourself. His work still resonates with the world we live in.”
To get “John Barrymore” and “Hamlet” up to current comedic speed, Saavedra sought out an actor who could be the man, the myth and the legend on stage against a revolving door of characters.
“Barrymore had presence and stature and charisma that has become the stuff of legend,” she said. “I wanted to do that justice, not make a caricature out of him. When Larry auditioned for the role, I saw what I was looking for right away.”
“Larry” is Lawrence Arrigale, who delved into the Gene Fowler Barrymore biography “Good Night, Sweet Prince,” rewatched Barrymore films such as “Twentieth Century” and “Midnight” and listened to recordings of Barrymore reciting speeches from “Hamlet” in preparation for the role.
“Like Mariangela mentions, it’s Rudnick’s great script that made all the difference,” said Arrigale. “I love comic roles, as did Barrymore, and this role allowed me to pull out all the stops as an actor seldom can nowadays.”
Arrigale said it’s a singular experience to play Barrymore in “I Hate Hamlet,”
“This has been all about enjoying a great role in a very funny, witty and well-written play — that and being able to bring the memory of Barrymore back to today’s audiences in a humorous, yet touching and respectful way.”