by Samuel L. Leiter
In Hamlet in Bed, three sets of cheekbones—often lit from beneath to accentuate their razor-sharp sculpting—compete for attention with Michael Laurence’s improbable but often engrossing, sometimes funny, well-performed, but highly implausible metatheatrical piece about a modern-day Hamlet and his overpowering Oedipal urges. Those facial protrusions belong to Mr. Laurence, the lanky writer-actor playing the Prince of Denmark wannabe; Annette O’Toole, the still stunning veteran actress who plays both objects—actual and fictional—of our hero’s maternal obsessions; and, of course, the skull of Yorick, which makes a dutiful appearance in this quirkily interesting conflation of Shakespeare’s play with a story about a screwed-up actor working out his mommy issues.
Let’s start with the show’s appearance: the small stage is stripped down by designer Rachel Hauck to its black walls, and a narrow black sheet hangs like an arras upstage center, serving as a screen for numerous projections of both words and images (good work from designer Dave Tennent). A pair of mattresses, each bound to their box springs with thick ropes, leans against the wall stage left. For much of the play, the two actors narrate their thoughts by speaking into a mic; their generally restrained, conversational delivery, especially Mr. Laurence’s, suggests the kind of late night radio raconteurs who used to keep listeners up through the night with their sexily intimate tones. The stylistic mix of direct narrative and straightforward realism is further spiced with a dream scene and even a sequence where the characters dance during a phone call to Ray Charles’s “You Don’t Know Me.” To emphasize the play’s meta creds, the program tells us: “Time: This very night. Place: This very theater.”
One day Michael buys an actress’s personal diary from a book peddler; since the actress, Anna May Miller (Ms. O’Toole), played Ophelia in the 1975, when she was 19, Michael is snared, especially because information in the diary makes it very likely that she’s his birth mother. (Far fetched, I agree. There’s more.) He too easily tracks her down and stalks her; soon enough he discovers that she holds a respectable day job but spends her nights as a promiscuous, chain-smoking barfly (she’s a trés hot 59) whose drunken carrying on keeps getting her ejected from one dive after the other.
Without revealing his agenda, and despite her having abandoned acting 40 years ago, Michael casts Anna as Gertrude in a stripped-down, showcase production of Hamlet he’s both starring in and directing. This production, which he considers his “Mousetrap” to determine her truth, seems to come out of nowhere, as if, having found his presumed mother/Gertrude, the otherwise feckless Michael willed it into existence. The image at the heart of his Hamlet is that everything happens in beds, and when Michael rehearses Hamlet and Gertrude’s closet scene—which he considers the “pivotal scene”—the two mattresses are thrown down and become the principal acting area. As they work their way through the scene, the tension between Michael and his mother—to whom he resists confessing their relationship—mirrors that between Hamlet and his.
Laurence and O’Toole keep their non-Shakespearean naturalism seething even during their Bardic encounters (shown in rehearsal clothes), giving increased credence to the confusion in Michael’s mind between truth and illusion, and further heightening his yearning for his mother. O’Toole, dressed in skintight, charcoal pants with low, black boots and a black blouse, her gorgeously abundant hair streaked with silver, and her eyes outlined in black against her alabaster skin, remains such a striking figure that it’s not difficult to see the strong sexuality aligned with Michael’s maternal needs.
Director Lisa Peterson squeezes mostly lifelike performances from O’Toole and Laurence, who get to speak large chunks from Shakespeare’s classic. Both actors run a gamut of emotional states, although O’Toole might benefit from a few less facial reactions in the earlier scenes. Also, despite Anna’s bed and barhopping proclivities, her sexy outfit goes a bit too far (Jessica Pabst did the costumes); when she stands before a mic she seems about to burst out singing country or rock (think Meryl Streep in Ricki and the Flash).
Hamlet in Bed isn’t very convincing, but it succeeds in keeping you awake during its 90 intermissionless minutes.
Hamlet in Bed
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
224 Waverly Place, NYC
Through October 25
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).