At the outset, Bedlam’s new production of “Hamlet,” with four actors covering all the roles in a largely uncut rendition of the script, seems engaging. Spoken at breakneck pace with excellent technique, the play comes bearing down on the audience like a freight train. The down-at-heels Access Theater is unembellished, and the audience is, for the first act, seated on the stage while the actors turn the usual seats into the ramparts of Elsinore. It’s a promising beginning.
Unfortunately, almost as quickly as one’s interest is piqued, it becomes apparent this is going to be nothing more than a protracted acting exercise — an endurance test for the players and an even greater one for the audience.
Given the speed at which this is presented, anyone without a solid working knowledge of “Hamlet” will swiftly be lost. Potential confusion is compounded by the mechanics necessary for the actors to switch between the characters, which often result in unintended laughs, such as when the one female actor has to be both Gertrude and Ophelia in one scene or when Rosencranz and Guildenstern are played interchangeably by three actors.
This all might be manageable if director Eric Tucker, who also cast himself as Hamlet (a poor idea in general and especially so here), had bothered to look into the play with any kind of depth. His Hamlet is played as a contemporary slacker, not a young man grappling with the issues of morality and mortality that plague Shakespeare’s character. If one is going to strip away a play to its essence, one better be pretty darn sure that essence is well thought-out and effectively communicated, not just a pretense for showing off.
The other three actors — Ted Lewis, Andrus Nichols, and Tom O’Keefe — are kept so busy juggling characters there is no time for any deeper examination of the play or any new perspectives imparted at its conclusion.
After more than three hours of this, audience fatigue inevitably sets in because it’s impossible to care about these characters, no matter how familiar they are. The voices blend together and the cleverness of moving the audience around between acts fades. All that’s left is the impression that the actors are very pleased with themselves for having done something “important.” They may think so, but a conceptual departure is valid only if it can create vital and illuminating theater. Here, it collapses on itself. I’ve seen an untold number of “Hamlet” productions, but I’ve never been more grateful to hear the title character say, “The rest is silence.”
It’s evident that playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo has been heavily influenced by Neil LaBute. It’s also clear in his new play “Really Really,” currently being produced by MCC, that he hasn’t got the playwriting chops or the developed worldview to carry off his mentor’s theatrical style. Colaizzo has turned in a mushy, twisted rom-com that’s more mean-spirited than meaningful — rather than an incisive look at how self-involved, amoral, and disconnected characters prey on one another.
Director David Cromer, whose outstanding work in “Our Town” and “Tribes” — to name just two — have made him the go-to director for finding multi-layered humanity in a script, has so little to work with here that the characters never rise above clichéd blandness.
The story concerns a group of college friends and what happens when the promiscuous Leigh, who has convinced her religious boyfriend Jimmy she’s pregnant to get him to marry her, has sex with Davis, the guy she really loved but who wouldn’t give her the time of day. She then cries “rape” and all golly-gosh breaks loose. (Colaizzo isn’t a strong enough playwright to even approach having hell break loose.)
In a series of truncated, half-written scenes, we learn that everyone is thinking only of what he or she wants and trying to manipulate others into giving it to them. Because… well, that’s the way young people are today. Not one of the characters is remotely appealing or sympathetic, which wouldn’t kill a better play, but this bleak view of contemporary young adults is hardly original, so it swiftly becomes tedious.
The cast, for the most part, work their hearts out trying to make people out of the cardboard characters they have been given. Best of the bunch is David Hull as Cooper, a jock who wants to stay in college as long as he can. Still, how he gets through his late and clumsily written revelation that college is the only place he’s ever felt he belongs beats me — particularly since it’s unsupported by anything we’ve seen in the character before. Lauren Culpepper does pretty well, too, as Grace, Leigh’s roommate and a “Future Leader of America.” Despite her aggressive solipsism, Grace does have a moral compass, and Culpepper makes that real, even in a part that’s ultimately a plot device instead of a person.
In contrast, Zosia Mamet as Leigh, the girl who cries rape, provides little beyond frustration. She gives a performance almost completely without affect, substance, or believability, as if she couldn’t be bothered to do anything but shuffle around and mouth the lines she’s been given. There’s a character in there — and it might be a complex one too, despite the sketchiness of the script — but an actress would have to dig to find it. Evidently, Mamet either can’t or won’t.
So, why would anyone want to watch really dull people do really rotten things to one another in a really poorly written play? I really have no idea. Perhaps we really should ask Neil LaBute.
HAMLET | Bedlam at Access Theater | 380 Broadway at White St. | Through Apr. 7; after Mar. 6 in repertory with “Saint Joan” | Mon., Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $30 at theatrebedlam.org
REALLY REALLY | MCC at the Lucille Lortel | 121 Christopher St., btwn. Bleecker & Hudson Sts. | Tue.-Wed. at 7 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $69 at ovationtix.com or 212-352-3101