Off-Broadway Theater Review: HAMLET IN BED (Rattlestick Playwrights Theater)

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by Dmitry Zvonkov on September 17, 2015

in Theater-New York


At the beginning of Hamlet in Bed, when its author and co-star Michael Laurence comes up to the standup microphone at the front of the stage, I can’t help wanting him to succeed; his manner—shy and awkward, earnest, sincere—make him a sympathetic, if only moderately engaging, presence. And even though in playing Michael—a fictionalized version of himself in a story “based on truth”— Mr. Laurence’s acting feels a bit stiff and unsure, it’s still watchable, the way his show is watchable, the way a cooking program like Semi-Homemade is watchable on a hungover Sunday afternoon.

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Michael was adopted. Now, at age 39, he’s spent the last 20 years searching for his biological mother without success. Until, that is, he buys a 40-year-old diary from a street vendor, which happened to belong to an actress named Anna (Annette O’Toole). In it Anna, 20 years old at the time of the entries, not only makes notes on playing Ophelia in Hamlet, but also talks about giving her baby up for adoption. Michael finds the now 60-year-old Anna, and even though she hasn’t acted since she was 20, hires her to play Gertrude in a version of Hamlet he’s staging, without revealing to her his suspicion that she might be his mother.

HAMLET IN BED (Rattlestick Playwrights Theater)

Mr. Laurence’s play has some high aspirations—repurposing Shakespeare, putting on a play within a play that may or may not itself be within a play—but in fact offers little more than its premise, which feels progressively more contrived as the script makes no meaningful effort to build on it. Hamlet in Bed is a one-line gag that lasts 90 minutes, the script padded with uninteresting exposition made up of generic elements: Anna’s whole biography consists of her being a kooky drunk living in the same Manhattan apartment for 40 years, either getting eighty-sixed from bars or picked up by losers for one night stands, and feeding alley cats by the dozen. This is not a character, it’s a place holder. And alley cats? In Manhattan? What century is this? Even simple details aren’t thoughtfully rendered: When describing trying to jerry-rig a latch to get his broken toilet to flush, Michael talks about putting his hand “in the muck.” Is this some special toilet in which the shit collects in the water tank?

HAMLET IN BED (Rattlestick Playwrights Theater)

Hampered by the lame script, the performances, while acceptable, do not stir up much emotion until the end of the show, when Anna and Michael, as Gertrude and Hamlet, rehearse part of the bedroom scene from Shakespeare’s play. Here at last we get a glimpse of just how formidable Ms. O’Toole’s acting powers really are (though the nuance that her character hasn’t practiced in 40 years is absent); and although perhaps not the ideal Hamlet, in this scene Mr. Laurence’s performance finally finds solid footing. A similar observation can be made concerning Lisa Peterson’s direction. Though she does a serviceable job for most of the show and makes good use of Dave Tennent’s excellent projections, it’s only when the actors are doing Shakespeare that we see a dynamic emotional world on the stage.

HAMLET IN BED (Rattlestick Playwrights Theater)

photos by Tristan Fuge

HAMLET IN BED (Rattlestick Playwrights Theater)

Hamlet in Bed
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place
ends on October 25, 2015
for tickets, call 212.627.2556 or visit

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