Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. In Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, novelist Charles Condamine is haunted by his peeved ex-wife Elvira.
And in Paul Rudnick’s comic valentine to the theater, I Hate Hamlet, TV star Andrew Rally – nervous about taking on one of Shakespeare’s greatest roles – is persuaded to accept the classical challenge by the ghost of legendary stage actor John Barrymore.
If this tale of spectral visitation sounds ideal for the Halloween season, that is when the Maltz Jupiter Theatre was first scheduled to produce the play two seasons ago. But — you guessed it — COVID got in the way of that plan, as theaters shut down and the Maltz used that downtime to completely renovate its playhouse. Now, with the I Hate Hamlet set long since built, the Maltz prepares to welcome back its audiences with Rudnick’s farce, but at Palm Beach Gardens’ Benjamin School auditorium, beginning Tuesday.
Tapped to direct the show is Bill Fennelly, who staged the Maltz’s acclaimed production of Hairspray four years ago. When he got the assignment, he knew exactly who he wanted for Barrymore — Broadway veteran Tom Hewitt.
“You need someone for Barrymore who is an absolute Olympian with text,” says Fennelly. “You need someone who is dashing and I believe, right now, you need someone who has an expansive, generous, very warm heart. And Tom Hewitt, as a human being, is all of those things. And as an actor, I believe he is capable of scaling the most Olympian mountains. It is just a dream to have someone who has achieved as much as he has in his career, who comes to the room ready to collaborate with everyone in the room.”
Unbeknownst to Fennelly, Hewitt previously played the Barrymore role a few years ago at the Bucks County (Pa.) Playhouse, which made it easier for him to accept the job again. “The words, although I’ve clicked and dragged them through the trash, they’re relatively easier to come back, so I knew that the work wouldn’t be all that arduous,” notes Hewitt. “It was a terrific opportunity to have fun and to do a role I loved doing before and to come and have another look at it. When you come back and look at it in a different context, it just gets richer and deeper and more fun.
“And coming to Florida in January and February, that’s not hard to take. I used to say, ‘When I’m an older actor, this is the kind of thing I’d like to do,’ and now I’m doing exactly that.”
Even with his experience with the play, Hewitt finds its demands challenging.
“Paul has written some outrageous situations, but there’s also a great deal of heart. And it goes into some dark places, it’s not all a romp. John Barrymore is a very complex person with a lot of challenges in his life. He made some bad choices,” says Hewitt with a hearty laugh, “which can be fun to play. The other challenges too, there’s some dancing and there’s also sword fights. So that’s logistically challenging, to learn that kind of choreography.”
Fennelly and Hewitt have a history together, appearing some 30 years ago in Julius Caesar at Hartford (Conn.) Stage Company. Hewitt had the featured role of Marc Anthony and Fennelly, in his first Actors’ Equity performance, played a Roman citizen. Together they discovered the dead body of Caesar.
“So I had this scene with the incredible Tom Hewitt and Tom was, as he is now, so generous and kind and brilliant. But we hadn’t seen each other in person really in 30 years. Yet when this came up, honestly, my first thought was ‘If I could have anyone in the world play Barrymore in this production, it would be my dream to work with Tom Hewitt again.’
“So I sort of cold-emailed him, out of the blue, and he wrote back within minutes.”
Hewitt has done many productions of Shakespeare before and since that Julius Caesar, but he can vividly recall his first encounter with the words of the Bard. “It was in the early ’70s. I was in middle school and it was at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. We were to see a production of ‘Titus Andronicus.’ I was very reluctant to go. I believe ‘Star Trek’ was on television that night and I didn’t want to miss it. So I went reluctantly to see ‘Titus Andronicus’ and it changed my life. There’s cannibalism, rape, dismemberment, so what’s not to love? It was done with such beauty and style and I was captivated. That’s really what lit the fire for me.”
In I Hate Hamlet, Andrew has to grapple with the dilemma of whether to take the easy, more lucrative television gig or to challenge himself with the towering role of Shakespeare’s melancholy Dane. Hewitt has often faced similar thorny choices. “There’s always that question — do you want fame or do you want glory? Glory often doesn’t come with a lot of publicity or money. And glory is fleeting,” he says. “So yes, it’s been: ‘Do I do art or do I go to Los Angeles? Do I take the job that’s less artistically fulfilling or do I do the thing that’s going to challenge me and help me grow?’”
Hewitt contends that throughout his career he usually has gone with the challenge, “but along the way, the universe has been very kind to me and I’ve been able to get both, especially since I started doing musicals. I was really a classical actor in regional theater, but then in the late ’90s, I did a short film with Julie Taymor and was later cast in ‘The Lion King.’ That really put me into the musical end of things, a sudden career change. And after ‘The Lion King’ came ‘The Rocky Horror (Picture) Show’ and on and on.”
During the year and a half that Broadway was shut down, Hewitt isolated himself. “I shut down. I played to my strengths, I was quiet. I didn’t socialize,” he says. Then, in September, he joined the cast of Hadestown for two months, followed by a return to the musical Chicago, “which I’ve been in, off and on, for the past 13 years. So the novelty of theater coming back has worn off. I hesitate to say this but I will: It’s frustrating to wear masks in rehearsals, it’s frustrating to be tested all the time and all the extra precautions that we have to take. It’s a challenging time and sometimes not a particularly fun time to do theater now.”
So it helps that he is doing a play like I Hate Hamlet. “It’s fun and it’s a love letter to the theater. You’re really pretty much guaranteed to have a good time,” says Hewitt. “I can speak from experience. I’ve done the play before and people absolutely love it. So don’t be frightened by the title and come and have a good time.”
For much of his career, Fennelly has directed the works of Shakespeare and other classical texts, but he readily concedes that “I also love a good sexy comedy” like I Hate Hamlet.
“This play is perfect for now. For the Maltz audience to return to the theater, after all we’ve been through, with this play is such an exhilarating reminder of the beauty, the joy, the power of theater. We all need to laugh right now and this play is laugh out loud funny.”
I HATE HAMLET, Maltz Jupiter Theatre at The Benjamin School, 4857 Grandiflora Road, Palm Beach Gardens. From Tuesday to Sunday, Feb. 20. $66-$91. 561-575-2223 or visit www.jupitertheatre.org.