Eureka! “The Understudy” by Theresa Rebeck which has recently opened Off-Broadway at Laura Pels Theatre and is a Roundabout production is a classic 21st Century comedy of the first order. Funny doesn’t get much funnier than this.
In every playbill there is this disclaimer: Understudies never substitute for the listed players unless a specific announcement is made at the time of the performance. And when that announcement is made and the star of the show (most probably someone from Hollywood i.e. a Jude Law, Daniel Craig or Hugh Jackman) that you have paid big bucks to see is not performing you race up the aisle to get a refund. Who wants to see the understudy? You are furious. Just think how the understudy feels.
Enter Theresa Rebeck with her right on target, smart observations and quick wit to the rescue to let us get a glimpse into what being an understudy entails. Especially if you happen to be Harry a bitter actor (Justin Kirk) who despises the Hollywood star system that rewards action heroes with millions of dollars for speaking dumbed down dialogue and you haven’t worked in a while and consider yourself a fine actor and have gotten this “understudy” position through a friend of a friend.
Understudy to Hollywood star Jake (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) – whose last picture pulled in over 60 million bucks its first weekend of release who is also understudying the other major starring role (the unseen Bruce) who gets paid even more in a Broadway production of a lost and recently discovered existentialist Kafka masterpiece which ends with a dance.
And so the ever cool and calm stage manager, Roxanne (Julie White) has the job of rehearsing these two at odds with each other actors with a stoned out of her mind Laura (also unseen) in the booth who keeps getting the change of set, sound and light cues wrong. To top it off, Harry left Roxanne six years ago and she hasn’t laid eyes on him since until this fateful day of rehearsal. It is then that she begins to be rattled and unravels before our eyes.
And Julie White does unravel. Hysterically so. She is a comic genius. She also shows a wonderful vulnerability and sensibility as the actress turned stage manager who was once spurned by the understudy that she has to now put into the show.
She is aided wonderfully by Justin Kirk who is quirky, questioning and yes bitter who begins to bond with the star as they find new dimensions in the Kafka script. Mr. Gosselaar plays up his celebrity and does an excellent job in being passionate about Kafka that you just begin to think there is something to this ridiculous play within a play. You have to see it to believe it’s so amusing. And in the end, touching.
Director Scott Ellis has done a great job in making all three actors hit their marks, getting them to delve beneath the surface satire and making this backstage story so fulfilling.
“The Understudy” has been extended through January 17th 2010.