Benator's Harry, more than vexed that he could not land a film role (but claiming not to be bitter) is around to rehearse a Kafka play, an opus lasting well over three hours. On stage, too, is Jake (Matthew Montelongo), a movie actor who, himself, will not be the main man in the Kafka. Husky and hunky, Jake sees Harry as an annoyance. Benator, by the way, has a lanky and slinky body type. Let us say that the men have issues.
Harry is taken by surprise when he finds that the stage manager, Roxanne (Jayne Paterson), is the woman he almost married but walked away from shortly before the wedding. Jayne, a former actor, has her own huge problems with unseen Laura (tech director) who cannot get anything straight because she is tanking up in the booth on all sorts of drugs. Laura manages to foul up all of Jayne's requests including set changes and suitable lighting. Thrown into this mix is a moment when Harry is absent and Jayne and Jake seize the opportunity for a hard and possibly passionate kiss.
It is Rob Ruggiero's purpose, as director, to maximize Rebeck's clever, fast-paced humor. He works with enthusiastic, impressive performers and the result is a diverting and lively show.
It all begins with Benator, whose credits at TheaterWorks include Lobby Hero and Santaland Diaries. His character is oddly idiosyncratic and the actor is a perfect fit for the part. Initially, he seems to be speaking to himselfexcept that he is out there by his lonesome addressing an audience. He mimics Jake, who gets paid a couple of million dollars for action films in which he shouts out lines like "Get in the truck!" Of course, Jake now has a more minor role as Charles, mentioned only, is the Kafka lead. Benator, however, is somehow endearing and sympathetic to the theatergoers almost despite himself. Montelongo (at TheaterWorks several years back in Take Me Out) is convincing. Egotistical and eager to disparage Harry, Jake goes toe-to-toe. Paterson manufactures an occasional shrill, cackling laugh as the anxiety-ridden Roxanne. This offends one's ears but it happens to fit with her character.
Beyond the comic edge, The Understudy, through the dialogue Rebeck composes for Harry, has a thoughtful and even metaphysical thematic aspect. Harry is searching for: a role, a place, a work place, and, really, meaning in life. What, after all, is existence all about?
Luke Hegel-Cantarella, set designer for the production, is pivotal, as his creations must slide in and out of scenes at the most inopportune of moments. With them, the piece shows greater texture and dimension.
The play includes segments from The Trial and The Castle, yet the Kafka in rehearsal is not a real work unto itself. This Understudy is a relatively short but rich evening or afternoon of theater. Rebeck's dialogue is constant and the actor repartee keen.
The Understudy continues at TheaterWorks in Hartford through September 18th. For ticket information, call (860) 527-7838 or visit www.theaterworkshartford.org.
- Fred Sokol