Stage Notes, Hate Crimes & Misdemeanors

The Alley's finally gotten around to that Houston community theater favorite, I Hate Hamlet. To the Alley's credit, playwright Paul Rudnick's 1991 Broadway smash remains bouncy, and since Alley audiences aren't likely to patronize more modest venues, I guess the Johnny-come-latelyness of its production is only a theatrical misdemeanor. Too, it's probably no big deal that whatever "Summer Chills" -- the theme supposedly uniting the Alley's earlier Mousetrap and this -- means, it doesn't really apply to the ghost of John Barrymore inspiring a jaded soap opera star to embrace Hamlet. No, the scary thing about Hate is how far the Alley will go to fill seats during what has usually been its down season. The actors, in other words, are criminally miscast.

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.

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Peter Szatmary