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‘I Hate Hamlet’ at Bucks County Playhouse: Actor and audience, haunted by laughter

The central figure, a struggling actor, hates a play a lot of people hate, so he stands for a lot of us. What he gets that we don't get is a Shakespeare seminar from the ghost of John Barrymore.

The cast of "I Hate Hamlet," through Dec. 1 at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope.
The cast of "I Hate Hamlet," through Dec. 1 at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope.Read moreJoan Marcus

When a ghost from the past messes with your business, best listen up.

That's the situation in Hamlet — and in I Hate Hamlet by Paul Rudnick, now playing in a good-natured, silly, and uproarious production at Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope through Dec. 1. In both, a ghost schools a young guy agonizing over his life.

Young TV actor Andrew Rally (likable Ben Fankhauser), has just rented an old Manhattan apartment. Once the home of famed actor John Barrymore, it now houses his trapped ghost (tremendous Tom Hewitt). Release will come only if Andrew does Hamlet in Central Park. Andrew says no. When he cries, "I hate Hamlet," he unwittingly summons the ghost in lightning and thunder.

In Shakespeare's longest play, Hamlet famously is on stage longest. But in I Hate Hamlet, the ghost is the most, a primo. He drives the plot; gets to swash, buckle, and fence; and reaps the biggest share of laughs. Broadway stalwart Hewitt (The Lion King; The Rocky Horror Show) has a ball with this plummy part. His ghost is flamboyant, unapologetic, with poses and facial expressions that play the audience like an old Wurlitzer.

A tug-of-war follows between specter and player over acting versus money, TV/film versus theater, love versus sex, and Hamlet itself. The ghost treasures art and "glory." His comic foil is Gary (very, very funny Steve Sanpietro), a TV "writer-producer-director" who treasures money. Gary has landed Andy a network commitment for a lucrative TV show, and he recoils from this Central Park gig. "This is Shakespeare, right?" Gary says, staggered. "Like algebra on stage." In a splendid Act 2 monologue, he calls TV "art perfected." Why? "When you watch TV, you can eat. You can talk. You don't have to pay attention, not if you've seen TV before."

Lillian, Andy's German agent, is played by Elizabeth Ashley, last at Bucks County in 1962 opposite Robert Redford in an early version of Barefoot in the Park. (Gary: "Andy, I love her, but she's a war criminal. I'm not kidding. She's a ten-hour documentary waiting to happen.") She has a sweet dance with the ghost, who, when this side of paradise, was once her bedmate. The time-bound and timeless will merge.

Although Rudnick has peppered his 1991 play with communications-age talk to bring it into 2018, it's not all the way there. Broadway director Marc Bruni (Beautiful: The Carole King Story) plays it broad, caricature-based, with a bale of stagey stuff, including arch accents: the Big Apple twang of real-estate agent Felicia (Janine LaMann); the ghost's Pre-Code thespian talk; and Lillian's German. Also somewhat dated is the underwritten role of Andy's virginal, romance-drunk girlfriend, Deirdre, sweetly played by Liz Holtan ("I'm not rich, really. Just my parents").

You can be haunted by fear, by song, by love, or by laughter. After the final bows of I Hate Hamlet, the crowd rollicked out into the street, still laughing, the ghost still haunting them all the way to their cars.