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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Imaginative Physical Production Puts Rebeck's
The Understudy in the Win Column

McCarter Theatre Center

Also see Bob's reviews of Henry VIII and Outside Mullingar

The Understudy takes us backstage to an understudy rehearsal during a successful run of a production of the play The Man Who Disappeared, a recently discovered work by Franz Kafka. Scenes read from the fictional play within a play suggest elements of Kafka's The Trial and The Castle. There are shifts in tone both in the script and the performance of the excerpts from the play within a play. Thus, at times, it appears to be satiric toward Kafka while at other times, it appears to be wise and insightful. The oddities of the understudy rehearsal give Rebeck's play a strange Kafkaesque feel. This "feel" ends up being distracting and off-putting as it leads the viewer to seek out Kafkaesque themes and situations in the backstage story only to discover that the few that may be inferred quickly evaporate. However, there are strong elements that emerge over the course of the play that do prove most satisfying.

JD Taylor, Danielle Skraastad, and Adam Green

The only actors at the rehearsal are Harry and Jake. Harry is a manic, resentful, usually unemployed, talented stage actor who has been hired to understudy Jake, a successful B-list Hollywood star, whose latest schlock monster movie was a box office smash. Jake is also the stand-by for the unseen Bruce, the A-list movie superstar who is the production's major draw. Directing the dress rehearsal is production stage manager Roxanne, an erstwhile actress who needed to shift her career in order to put food on the table. It turns out that Harry had been engaged Roxanne six years earlier but skipped town without notice or explanation two weeks before the scheduled wedding. This is the first time they have seen one another since then. Harry, truly having no explanation for his behavior, might be considered Kafka light.

Whether speaking directly to the audience, interacting with his fellow actors at their rehearsal, or performing scenes from Rebeck's "Kafka play," Adam Green (Harry) is delightfully full of maniacal energy. JD Taylor (Jake) smoothly and movingly reveals the soulful and vulnerable artist which is initially buried beneath his self-important fašade. Danielle Skraastad (Roxanne) is suitably outraged, unhappy and discombobulated. However, her performance is a one note anger fest, capturing none of the humor inherent in her trying unsuccessfully to hold herself together.

Eugene Lee has designed a doozy of an interactive set which is a major factor in the transformation of The Understudy into a delightful valentine to the theatre and its practitioners. It is a show unto itself. It is truly funny, full of surprises, and, ultimately, abetted by the cast and effects both tactile and sonic, enveloping the audience in the theatrical world which the production celebrates. Nick Kourtides (sound design and original music), Stephen Strawbridge (lighting design), Alison Cole (production stage manager), Anthony O. Bullock (stage manager), and David York (director of production) all deserve a piece of the credit. In fact, three members of the crew received bows and appreciative audience cheers.

Of course, primary credit for this wonderfully inventive production belongs to director Adam Immerwahr. Immerwahr has conceived and brought to life a production which considerably elevates this play.

Theresa Rebeck has emerged at the forefront of today's playwrights as author of such diverse works as Mauritius, Bad Dates and Omnium Gatherum (co-author), among over a dozen of her produced plays. The Understudy is a bit of a trifle in her considerable oeuvre, but it ultimately emerges in this production as a heartfelt, moving and rapturous paean to the theatre and those moments of joyful exhilaration which theatre brings to its actor artists. As expansively conceived and directed by Adam Immerwahr for this production, we the audience are swept up into their joyousness.

The Understudy continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday 7:30 pm/ Friday and Saturday 8 pm/ Matinees: Saturday 3 pm/ Sunday 2 pm) through (note extended date) November 2, 2014, at the at the McCarter Theatre Center (Berlind Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton 08540. Box Office: 609-258-2787; online:

The Understudy by Theresa Rebeck; directed by Adam Immerwahr

Harry.........................Adam Green
Jake..............................J.D Taylor
Roxanne.........Danielle Skraastad

Photo: Charles T. Erickson

- Bob Rendell

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