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The Understudy

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Understudy
Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Justin Kirk
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The words “laugh riot” have not traditionally been associated with Franz Kafka, but that may soon need to change. The Understudy is so sly a satire of Kafka’s writing, and so smart a comic exploration of how the famed German author’s output could apply to the existentialist musings of theatre folk just standing by life, that its playwright, Theresa Rebeck, may herself need to adopt a heretofore unfamiliar appellation: insightful comedienne.

It’s a gift Rebeck has only shown glimmers of in the past. Her Bad Dates, seen at Playwrights Horizons in 2003, was an imperfect solo show about one woman’s struggle against romantic and career adversity that got its laughs the way most things do: by not trying too hard. Most of Rebeck’s plays can’t say the same - her recent efforts have ranged from the competent (Mauritius) to the in- (The Water’s Edge) to the somewhere-in-between (Our House, The Scene) - but this play, now being produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre under Scott Ellis’s direction, reminds you that Rebeck at her most agile is unlike anyone else.

It helps, of course, that the production counts among its arsenal one of the most valuable weapons any stage comedy can wield: Julie White, the Tony winner for The Little Dog Laughed, and a foremost Rebeck interpreter, in whose hands Bad Dates became considerably more than the sum of its parts. But White delivers here only what she always does: a brilliantly calculated and gleefully sophisticated performance tap dancing on the very edge of mania. Her role benefits from that treatment, but it and the rest of the play seem good enough to sustain multiple interpretations.

The Understudy
Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Julie White
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

So it’s all the more delicious that the play itself is about three theatrical artisans who are only allowed to recreate, never create. White is Roxanne, the stage manager of the smash-hit Broadway production of “Kafka’s undiscovered masterpiece” (no, really), trying to plow through an understudy rehearsal. Yes, there’s the small problem of her assistant in the booth disregarding every conceivable cue. But more troublesome are the actors Roxanne’s rehearsing: Jake (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), a movie star and the play’s second lead, who’s understudying the star, Bruce; and Harry (Justin Kirk), a working theatre actor newly cast as Jake’s standby.

Roxanne didn’t know about this in advance - if she had, she may have objected to Harry, who left her at the altar six years earlier, being cooped up with her all day. But there's just as much tension between Harry the Artist and Jake the Hollywood Heartthrob, who recently starred in a blockbuster weather-action flick for which Harry unsuccessfully auditioned. Jake’s being groomed to replace the even bigger Bruce, when and if he leaves, and Jake knows he’ll probably never get to go on even if that happens. But hey, a job’s a job.

Rebeck does derive some easy comedy from all this - is Harry actually saying his soliloquies in the world of the play, or are they just for our benefit? - and although the play-within-the-play spirals ever further into ridiculousness, ending in a disjointed dance of unrequited ambition, Rebeck’s sincerity toward the theatrical craft prevents The Understudy from being shallow or gimmicky.

Yes, the barely decipherable plot of the antiestablishment Kafka play includes situations that echo oddly between the men, and there’s another thread of (potential) romance that must play out before the evening is through. But Rebeck examines a little-observed area of show business: the process of the star who, from the house, may seem like nothing more than an empty name, as well as that of the people you never see because they’re too busy offstage.

The intricately analytical Harry gains new respect for Jake when he expresses his deep passion for Kafka - Jake is devoted to both doing the play reverently, but wants to shed his action-star image for a more challenging film role he’s supposed to hear about soon. The unseen Bruce, 20 years Jake’s senior, is apparently grappling with the same concerns. And Roxanne, who was once an actress herself, shows that she may be the most brilliant of them all by unlocking new shadings in the play’s dialogue that its director missed because he insisted on casting unimaginative men in every role.

“You can choose what you want,” Jake insists, “but what you want is not your choice.” He’s right, and the play spends 90 minutes proving that all three are trapped by their choices in the choices of others. Ellis, however, gives them all full rein in his cool, crisp, and zippy production, which solidly captures the prevailing, franticness of “One week, will it ever be right?” Alexander Dodge’s set is a deceptively complex collection of designs ranging from the rigidly realistic to the outright fantastic - evolving into a more ephemeral understanding of the universe just as the characters do.

If White is playing her typical I-can’t-believe-this-happening role, she does it expertly, channeling her control freak-nervous energy full-bore into the stage manager desperately trying to wrench order from the mounting chaos. Kirk is a wry wonder as Harry, making him just the slightest bit insane, yet with a firm grasp of oversized honesty that stretches beyond merely what our senses can perceive. Gosselaar is making his stage debut, and isn’t as comfortable or pliable than the others - but even that works for portraying the Los Angeles stiff who has to learn that stage acting is a lot more than just standing around and barking lines.

It’s a vital message, especially in the current, heavily star-driven theatre climate, but not a predictable one from the often schematic Rebeck. But there’s nothing familiar about The Understudy. Like Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, which is still at Playwrights Horizons, it takes a theatre cliché everyone assumes they know and then proves hilariously why they don’t, all while making serious points about the vagaries of an art and industry that even its most devoted practitioners don’t always fully understand.


The Understudy
Through January 3
Roundabout Theatre Company Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: www.roundabouttheatre.org