I Hate Hamlet

North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre
Through Nov. 4

It’s somewhat difficult to sympathize with a main character whose biggest decision is whether to take $3 million to do a TV series or star in a Central Park production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This might be the ultimate iteration of the “First World problem.”

However, North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre’s production of Paul Rudnick’s I Hate Hamlet occasionally achieves some moments of comedy and poignancy with material whose off-stage origins are in some ways more entertaining than the play itself.

I Hate Hamlet deals with Andrew Rally (Bill Hader look-alike Christopher Bynum), a TV actor from a recently canceled medical drama who’s moved to New York (and John Barrymore’s old apartment) for a Shakespeare in the Park lead he’s reluctant to take because … well, see the play’s title.

Encouraged by his virginal girlfriend Deirdre (Sarah Stimpson) and broker Felicia (Sandra Shelton), he holds a séance that summons Barrymore (Chris Brown), who browbeats (and sword-beats) Andrew into facing up to his real reason for resisting the play. Since additional complications are required, Barrymore’s success in getting Andrew on stage doesn’t mean opening night will go smoothly.

In the original 1991 Broadway production of I Hate Hamlet, actor Evan Handler (whose parents live in Chatham County) infamously stormed off stage after the first act because co-star Nicol Williamson struck him in the rear with his sword. Rudnick’s tale of dealing with the alcoholic Williamson (it’s still online on newyorker.com) is a sight more entertaining than the play that inspired it, with its now-dated look at the New York theater scene versus the LA television industry as a metaphor for art and commerce (Rudnick himself went on to a successful career writing such big-budget studio comedies as In and Out and Addams Family Values).

There is a strong emotional core to the story, though, with Andrew’s reluctance to play Hamlet on stage serving as a metaphor for the need to risk failure, something well conveyed by Bynum’s straight-man performance. As Barrymore, though, Brown walks away with the show, conveying the hamminess and regrets of a talent who wasted his gifts.

Brown’s chemistry with Bynum brings a strong energy to their scenes, and the two are great when delivering such witticisms as an argument made entirely of Shakespeare play titles (their swordfight, choreographed by Jason Bailey, also goes considerably better than the Broadway version). Brown also has terrific chemistry with Sheila Outwaite, who plays Andrew’s agent with her own history with Barrymore.

I Hate Hamlet doesn’t offer much insight into the Danish play or provide a counterargument for those put off by its density and four-hour run time, but it’s an affectionate valentine to the craft of acting and its challenges.You might not walk out of the theater loving I Hate Hamlet, but you won’t hate it either.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Infinite jest.”