By: David Sheward
Ever been to a wedding where you only knew one or two people, the reception never seemed to end, and you couldn’t wait to get out of there? That’s the feeling I got at Austin Pendleton’s sluggish p
roduction of Hamlet for Classic Stage Company. This is a major disappointment since Pendleton is one of our most insightful directors and actors (his staging of Between Riverside and Crazy for Atlantic Theatre Company and Second Stage is a highlight of this season) and his lead is Peter Sarsgaard, a fine performer and a rare film star with a commitment to the stage classics.
But Pendleton seems to have based his entire concept on Hamlet’s sarcastic remarks to Horatio about the "bak’d meats" from his father the Danish king’s funeral "coldly furnish[ing] forth the marriage tables" for the
ceremony uniting his newly widowed mother Gertrude to his hated uncle Claudius who secretly murdered the monarch to take the crown. The entire three-hour production takes place in set designer Walt Spangler’s icy grey banquet hall with a conspicuous wedding cake upstage. I kept hoping someone would fall into it during a sword fight, but no such luck. As the tragedy unfolds, whenever an actor is not involved in a scene, he sits at one of the well-stocked bars on either side of the stage to knock back a few. I often wished I could join them.
It’s not a bad idea to use the o’er-hasty marriage ceremony as the central metaphor for the production. It is the event that drives Hamlet to seek his revenge against Claudius and to examine all of his life choices. But there is so little passion amongst the participants, this claustrophobic party grows tiresome quickly.
Sarsgaard is an intelligent actor, his performances in The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, and Three Sisters (the latter two directed by Pendleton) offered fresh and surprising takes on Chekhov’s conflicted heroes. Yet his
melancholy Dane is all jittery poses and eccentric, choppy line readings. Almost everything he says is given a sarcastic edge. His few sincerely delivered observations are invariably followed by a dismissive laugh. Ultimately, this Hamlet is a spoiled teenager, stuck in his smartass phase.
Most of the cast is equally stale, flat, and unprofitable. Harris Yulin’s dry Claudius is a tired old man, ready for bed. Penelope Allen goes in the opposite direction and overplays Gertrude’s sorrow. Lisa Joyce is a beautiful but empty Ophelia. Glenn Fitzgerald’s Laertes has a temper tantrum every few minutes. Only the reliable Stephen Spinella’s Polonius gives a hint of an inner life, conveying the loyal but naïve statesman’s love of his family and a desire to serve his king. He’s the only guest at this wedding worth sitting next to.
April 15-May 10. Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St., NYC. Tue.-Thu., 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., Sun., 3 p.m. Running time: three hours and ten mins. including one intermission; $66-$126. (212) 677-4210 or www.classicstage.org.