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If you thought Hamlet had mother issues, wait until you get a load of the neurotically tortured protagonist of the new play written by and starring Michael Laurence. He’s Michael, an adoptee actor who attempts to reunite with the woman he thinks is his birth-mother by casting her as Gertrude in his self-starring production of the Shakespeare classic. The results are as psychologically twisted, if unfortunately not as compelling, as you might expect from Hamlet in Bed, receiving its world premiere at off-Broadway’s Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.
Laurence, who in the past successfully exploited a classic theatrical character — Samuel Beckett’s Krapp — in Krapp, 39, has infused this piece directed by Lisa Peterson with film noir-style bleakness. Performed on a bare stage strewn with mattresses to reflect the stylistic approach of the play-within-a-play, it begins with the lanky playwright/actor, dressed in a shabby black suit and holding a skull, directly addressing the audience.
He proceeds to unfold a tale of how he’s long been obsessed with finding his real mother, and after happening upon the diary of Anna (Annette O’Toole), an actress who played Ophelia decades earlier, believes that she’s the woman he’s been looking for. He easily tracks her down, discovering her to be a barfly working in a dead end job. When he calls her out of the blue offering her the chance to audition for his upcoming production of Hamlet, she promptly hangs up on him.
But his persistence pays off, and she agrees to play the role despite not having acted in forty years. During the ensuing rehearsals, art and life bleed together as Michael finds it increasingly difficult to restrain himself from revealing his true motives and Anna begins to wonder why her co-star is inhabiting his role all too fully.
Despite its provocative if not exactly credible premise, the play doesn’t succeed in making its disparate themes coalesce. Its strangeness is only emphasized by the varying theatrical styles employed, from naturalistic dialogue to lengthy monologues, or more appropriately in this case, soliloquies delivered into microphones. One minute we’re hearing a comic description by Michael of his futile attempt to fix a toilet, and the next we’re watching him and Anna dancing separately to Ray Charles singing “You Don’t Know Me.”
The piece might have worked better if it contained more humor. There are flashes, such as when Michael, after confusing “Hamlet” with the word “helmet,” self-consciously comments, “Freudian slip — like this whole play.” But most of the proceedings are played out with a deadly seriousness that only accentuates the overall pretension.
Laurence delivers a performance intense enough to suggest that he would be entirely credible as Shakespeare’s prince. But it’s O’Toole, still sizzlingly sexy at 62, who’s the standout here. Infusing her highly physical portrayal with an engrossing combination of sassy bravado and emotional vulnerability, she makes Anna the far more compelling character. Now, if only we could see her actually playing Gertrude.
Cast: Annette O’Toole, Michael Laurence
Playwright: Michael Laurence
Director: Lisa Peterson
Scenic designer: Rachel Hauck
Costume designer: Jessica Pabst
Lighting designe: Scott Zielinski
Original music and sound designer: Bart Fasbender
Presented by the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
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Melvin Van Peebles