“Hamlet in Bed” is a quirky dark comedy from actor and playwright Michael Laurence that counts as its main inspiration the turbulent relationship between Shakespeare’s gloomy Dane and his mother, Queen Gertrude.
Set in present-day New York, the two-character play revolves around a manic performer and writer (also “Michael”), who was given up for adoption as a newborn and has been trying to resolve his abandonment issues ever since.
When a street peddler sells Michael the handwritten journal of an actress who 40 years earlier played Ophelia and gave up the child she conceived with a co-star, it ignites the obsession that is the central agitation of “Hamlet in Bed”: Could this woman -- it takes Michael mere hours to track her down -- be his birth mother?
“Hamlet in Bed” begins the 21st season at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, with Laurence (the Fringe solo show “Krapp, 39”) co-starring alongside Annette O’Toole, the “Superman III” and “Smallville” actress who just isn’t seen enough on New York stages. The 90-minute world premiere is directed by Lisa Peterson.
O’Toole’s reclusive Anna has become a corporate drone and barfly since her actress days. Laurence quickly seduces her with the promise of a role as Gertrude in a production of “Hamlet” he’s staging. He has made the whole thing up to draw Anna nearer, though he keeps the deception going with items such as the “contract” he needs her to sign.
Laurence, shuffling and melancholic in a way that calls to mind a younger Bill Nighy, constantly calls attention to the fact we’re watching a play; from the stage, he talks to the audience, referring to his fictional “Hamlet” as “a Freudian slip.” The device allows him to keep his pose of ironic distance from what’s transpiring, though it won’t appeal to everyone.
Once Laurence sets up the background, the action reverts to a month before the present day, and progresses forward in weekly intervals from there, up through the play’s murky climax.
O’Toole is positively trippy as a woman who, until she’s found by Laurence, feels as if she’s “slept” through her last 40 years in New York. With her long, graying hair and girlish figure, Anna is a transfixing example of a Greenwich Village single settling into life as a crazy cat lady -- Laurence’s confounding (at least, to her) interest in her life so restores her youthful fecundity that she menstruates for the first time in seven years.
O’Toole is comfortable and, truly, fearless, without putting any gloss on Anna’s unlikeable personality traits. She gives a warts-and-all interpretation that’s oodles of fun to watch.
Michael has a theory that Shakespeare wrote “The Queen’s Closet” scene (where Hamlet and Gertrude argue about her worth as a mother) first and built “Hamlet” out from there. “Hamlet in Bed” takes that scene as a point of departure and expands it outward, reminding us how inexhaustible the source material is, even as it offers up two very good actors in a minimalist production with, I suspect, relatively narrow appeal.
“Hamlet in Bed,” through Oct. 25 at Rattlestick Theater, 224 Waverly Place. Tickets: $10-$35. Call 866-811-4111.