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(photo by Tristan Fuge)

Michael Laurence and Annette O’Toole play actors rehearsing HAMLET at the Rattlestick (photo by Tristan Fuge)

Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
224 Waverly Pl. between Eleventh & Perry Sts.
Wednesday - Monday through October 25, $35

For several decades, people have been adding the phrase “in bed” at the end of fortune-cookie predictions to come up with playful sexual innuendos. But writer and actor Michael Laurence takes it a lot deeper by adding the two words to what he considers the greatest work in the English language. At the beginning of Hamlet in Bed, making its world premiere at the Rattlestick, Laurence stands in the middle of a spare stage, talking into a microphone like a confessional stand-up comic. “Here’s the plot; let’s get that out of the way. OK, not the plot, but the premise: An actor and an actress perform a play. (It’s a play within a play.) The actor and the actress may or may not be mother and son, and they may or may not know it. You know the play, the play is Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Yes, that mother and son.” Laurence gives himself three plum roles: his (apparently) real self, an actor who has written Hamlet in Bed; a fictionalized version of himself, an unemployed actor who thinks he might have found his birth mother; and the great Dane of literary legend. Obsessed with Hamlet — he arrives onstage holding a skull as if it’s Linus’s blanket, like he cannot exist without it — Laurence tells a story in flashback of how he purchased a nearly forty-year-old diary of Anna May Miller (Annette O’Toole), an actress who was playing Ophelia in a New York City production of Hamlet. She discusses getting pregnant by the man playing Hamlet and giving the baby up for adoption, and giving up acting as well. Laurence thinks that child might be him, so he tracks down the woman, now a lonely barfly living in a seedy rent-controlled apartment, and pretends that he’s staging a unique version of Hamlet — taking place mostly in bed — and wants her to audition for the role of Gertrude. He believes that if they play a fictional mother and son, he can determine if he really is her child. As they delve into rehearsal, Laurence keeps dropping hints about their possible relationship while the sexual tension between them grows, adding possible incest to the already complicated, multilayered mix.

Annette OToole is mesmerizing as woman trying to escape her past in HAMLET IN BED (photo by Tristan Fuge)

Annette O’Toole is mesmerizing as a woman trying to escape her past in HAMLET IN BED (photo by Tristan Fuge)

Hamlet in Bed is overly self-aggrandizing, self-conscious, self-referential, and self-satisfied — yet it’s also compelling and gripping for most of its ninety minutes. Laurence (The Few, Krapp, 39) and O’Toole (Cat People, Smile) take turns at microphones giving long, intimate soliloquies about their failed lives (he talks about not being able to fix the flusher on his toilet; she details yet another late-night pickup), but it’s their scenes together that are fired by an intense chemistry. Rachel Hauck’s set consists of a couple of microphones, a ratty mattress, and a scrim on which Dave Tennent projects occasional words and images that give the proceedings a noir feel. Directed by Lisa Peterson (An Iliad, Shipwrecked), the play is often too stagnant, but Laurence and O’Toole are a pleasure to watch, he appropriately edgy and nervous, she much harder to decipher, at times seeming to turn into her nineteen-year-old self. “I have this thing,” Laurence says at the start. “I think I am Hamlet and Hamlet is me. . . . Most of all, I want to do that scene with Hamlet’s mother, the queen.” By writing and starring in Hamlet in Bed, he allows himself to do just that; but fortunately, what could have come off like a vanity project is much more. After all, as Hamlet and Laurence both say, “The play’s the thing.”

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