Hamlet is one of the single most acclaimed pieces of theater in the history of the stage. Over the decades it has been deeply analyzed from every possible direction. Any new work looking to find some fresh angle on the drama is going to have difficulty. Playwright Bill Cain’s The Last White Man manages a few glimmers of fresh insight into the classic tragedy. Next Act Theatre closes its current season with the world premiere of the play in its intimate studio theater.
Ken Miller plays Charlie--an acclaimed film actor who has just won an Academy Award. He’s looking for his next conquest as an actor in the role of Hamlet in a live stage production. Miller has the right poise and presence for a big name film actor who finds profound frustration with the stage. He’s struggling under the weight of the role. Opening night, understudy Neil Brookshire made an impressively nuanced appearance as Charlie’s understudy--a notable stage actor who dreams of perfecting the role. (The talented J.J. Gatesman has been scheduled to play the understudy for the production.)
Brian J. Gill is occasionally stunning in the role of an actor who, in turn, is asked to take over the role of Hamlet from the understudy. Gill has a staggering emotional precision that serves the role quite well. Demetria Thomas conjures a cleverly dark humor in the role of the director who is challenged by the shifting Hamlets. Thomas maintains a compassionate wisdom as director that lends a much-needed authority to the ensemble. The four-person ensemble has more than enough levity to keep Cain’s drama wrestling its way across the stage from beginning to end.
And then there's the script. Bill Cain's drama is breathtakingly competent. There are issues that keep it from drawing on the universals it seems to be reaching for. Set in 1989, there are a number of pop cultural references that should appeal to baby boomers. There's an ongoing actor's dichotomy that Cain keep's referring to: would you rather be James Dean or Marlon Brando? Would you rather die young and at your peak or wind-up as the guy who kept acting into mediocrity, ultimately winding-up as Superman's father in 1978? My understanding of the legend of Brando is different. It's the story of a guy who just got sick of Hollywood...refusing to learn lines and slouching about onset...but he kept acting anyway because it was something to do and he liked being weird. That's not exactly the same thing as declining into mediocrity. It's the kind of thing that clashes against the deeper resonances of Cain's script. So many little distractions keep the script away from its central journey into the soul of drama. There's a good drama in The Last White Man. It could easily be edited-down into a far superior 90-minute masterpiece.
Next Act Theatre’s production of The Last White Man runs through May 8 at Next Act’s space on 255 S. Water St. For ticket reservations and more, visit www.nextact.org.