With one vital exception: Paul Hope's wonderfully debonair Barrymore. Dashing and confident when pointing out that "we must never confuse acting with asthma," Hope makes the larger-than-life icon so urbane and learned that he's almost godly. "I am not a ham," he insists, dripping with sophisticated insight, "I'm a crowd." His delivery is impeccably timed and dry, his recitations of Shakespeare are reasonably insightful and he even musters noble rage at the gossip surrounding him -- not to mention irate shame that most of it is true. At one point the text has Barrymore take a histrionic bow; Hope deserves the fond applause he gets.
Since he's the focal point, he makes the production worth seeing. And scenic designer Jeff Cowie -- a consistently superior craftsman -- has recycled his stately English manor of Mousetrap into an eye-catchingly regal New York townhouse. But boy, are these two hampered. As Andrew, the soap opera actor whose credo is, "I'm from L.A. -- I like modern things," Jeffrey Bean is too broadly comic, and not the right physical type, for his role. The supporting cast is particularly out of its element with their misassigned ethnic roles; they don't look their parts (cumbersome getups don't help), and with accents so bulky that they're embarrassing, they don't act them either. As usual, director Michael Wilson milks the jokes, relying on physical humor and sight gags; his penchant for sound cues is becoming a hobbyhorse. But still, Rudnick's one-liners, delivered by Hope's Barrymore on Cowie's magnificent set, save the day.
-- Peter Szatmary
I Hate Hamlet plays through August 6 at the Alley, 615 Texas, 228-8421.