Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
Rebeck has authored plays like Bad Dates and Seared, the latter recently at Williamstown Theatre Festival. She also created television's "Smash," which featured much musical backstage drama. The goings-on behind the scenes within "Smash" feel akin to the plot line of The Understudy.
Harry (Eric Bryant) initially arrives on stage to talk about himself. About to rehearse a Franz Kafka little known theater work, he is somewhat amiable, serious about his work as a stage actor, but physically not quite together. Maiko Matsushima costumes him in loosely fitted garb that hangs about his frame. He is there to rehearse with Jake (Brett Dalton), one of the principals in the cast for the upcoming production. Jake, suave and too personable to be true, is an action movie performer. The other leading man for the Kafka is the unseen Bruce, a film star. Bruce is not available for this rehearsal and Harry, having memorized those lines, will run them with Jake.
The harried stage manager attempting to draw all of this together is Roxanne (Andrea Syglowski). When she and Harry see one another, bittersweet sparks fly. It seems they were engaged to be married and Harry walked out at nearly the last moment. They have not come face-to-face since but, for Roxanne, the wound is wide open.
The literal rehearsal is pretty much a hoot since Laura (we never see her), the woman dropping set pieces and lighting, is, in Roxanne's words, "a stoner." The result is that Laura always gets it wrong. (Andrew Boyce, who designed the sets for The Understudy, is splendid at his craft.) Roxanne is expecting a bedroom scene but receives something else which has nothing to do her request. The flawed scene scenario, repeated a number of times, is always worth a chuckle or two.
We never do find out a great deal about the Kafka other than it is dark, foreboding and haunting. Further explication, however, might have taken away from Rebeck's primary story. The Understudy is about personal relationships. Appearance, among the three actors on stage, does not equal reality. On the surface, Jake is out there by himself: fit, well-groomed, and taking on a play. Harry is down on his luck. Roxanne is scrambling to right her professional life, to gain stability.
Rebeck typically writes catchy dialogue and that is true for much of The Understudy. When, past midpoint, she develops more than one dimension for each of the characters, the play's theme takes on greater importance. Momentum is pivotal.
The playwright is also known to be deft with comedy. Roxanne's line, for example, "Oh, actors, you suck," hits the spot.
The production benefits from three strong performances as each individual gets time in the spotlight and in combination with one another. Director David Kennedy does a nice job of creating balance so that no one dominates. In a way, each character is vying for control and none of the three achieve it. Otherwise, this package would have been too neat.
Theresa Rebeck provides symmetry for this script. Harry is alone at the beginning, but the show's final scene, one of its best, delves more deeply into collective humanity with an artful, lyrical conclusion.
The Understudy, through September 1, 2018, continues at Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Ct., Westport CT. For tickets, call 203-227-4177 or visit www.westportplayhouse.org.