Theresa Rebeck’s The Understudy (2008) is a comical, 90-minute, one-act depiction of life in the theater. The setting is a theater during a special rehearsal to help prepare the new understudy for a Broadway premiere of a recently discovered work by Franz Kafka. On the big stage at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre through November 2, The Understudy presents a humorous and affectionate representation of two actors and their stage manager — all under unusual personal and occupational stresses.
From the opening sound of a gunshot until the final curtain, high tension and multiple mishaps, both human and technical, proliferate. It’s a funny play, with some razor sharp wit, clever dialogue, and rich comical situations evolving as rehearsal and personal relationships progress. Ms. Rebeck is also delivering an indictment of the American Theater’s obsession with celebrity and the debilitating, dehumanizing effects of that obsession on the dedicated artists who continue the work they love as actors, stage managers, and other theater artists. The fact that the play-within-the-play is a lost work by Franz Kafka helps to ensure that the comedy served here will at times be dark and satirical.
This production, under the resourceful direction of Adam Immerwahr, in his first time directing on a McCarter main stage, merges a dynamically interesting, energetic, and talented cast of three with an extravagantly engaging set design and dazzling production values. What the script may lack in depth or development of plot and characters, this vibrant trio of experienced young actors, along with Eugene Lee’s fascinating, frequently moving set as a fourth character, provide to successfully capture the audience’s attention and interest.
The central metaphor here compares these anxious, isolated actors to characters from Kafka’s stories, particularly The Trial and The Castle — placed in mysterious, surreal situations, controlled by irrational forces in a dark, absurd world where there is no choice but to forge ahead. In The Understudy those tyrannical, invisible, offstage forces include not just the Hollywood-driven financial powers of the acting hierarchy and the whims of the businessmen producers, but also the erratic behavior of a stoned light board operator with her abundant supply of wheeling and flying scenery and special effects. Roxanne, the stage manager character, and her two actors, Harry and Jake, are, of course, also subject to the vicissitudes of human behavior in the tangles of a romantic triangle of sorts.
As the McCarter program points out, however, “everything you need to know about Kafka to enjoy The Understudy is “nothing at all …” Despite Kafka’s brooding black and white visage and a greatly enlarged page from an edited manuscript hanging over the stage, profundity, character exploration, and plot development are not priorities here. Comedy and a fascinating, quirky glimpse at the creative process of theater are the order of the day for this show, and the opening-night audience responded with abundant laughter from start to finish.
In the role of Harry the understudy, Adam Green establishes a winning rapport with the audience in his brilliantly funny, satiric, psychologically-revealing opening monologue. He continues to navigate skillfully the difficulties of the journeyman actor confronting first Jake (JD Taylor), his rival “Hollywood” scene counterpart, then Roxanne (Danielle Skraastad), his stage manager/boss, who also happens to be the woman he jilted just two weeks before their scheduled wedding. Mr. Green, who played Figaro in last spring’s acclaimed McCarter productions of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, is charming and sympathetic in his frustrations (“I mean it’s not — and it’s not that I’m bitter. People look at you; they say oh he’s an actor who’s not liked so he must be kind of bitter, and I am, I am bitter, but that doesn’t mean that movies don’t suck …”) — an ideal guide to lead us into the crazy backstage world of actors and the rehearsal process.
Mr. Taylor’s Jake, a screen star known for his roles in action movies, commands $2 million for his film roles, yet remains at the mercy of bigger Hollywood names and ruthless producers. His conventional good looks and dashing presence have gone a long way for Jake, who knows how to draw a gun with panache and apparently reached the apex of his career with his recent movie line: “Get on the truck!” Mr. Taylor persuasively embodies both the much mocked matinee idol/action movie star and also a more sympathetic actor coming to terms with a challenging stage role, two psychologically complex colleagues and the realities of life in the theater.
Ms. Skraastad’s Roxanne is commanding and larger than life as stage manager and woman scorned. She battles valiantly against the forces of fate and theatrical mischance to try to keep the rehearsal and her life moving forward. Harry explains that “the stage manager is the one person in the theater you’re supposed to be able to count on to keep her head. That’s the job description: to always have six kinds of duct tape, a pencil sharpener, Band-Aids, and a cool head” — but under the circumstances the cool head is too much to expect. Roxanne is understandably, comically flummoxed in her struggles with the intoxicated light board operator, the actors and the producers on the phone — not to mention the unexpected appearance of her ex-fiancé. With her air of authority, barely covering fierce anger and hysteria, she is funny and admirably convincing.
Mr. Lee’s set uses the immense Matthews stage and many of its accessories to full advantage, representing, and at the same time exaggerating and satirizing, the excesses of the big-budget Broadway show. With dozens of lighting instruments on all sides, a giant wind machine, melodramatic music and sound effects, picturesque onstage precipitation, a ghost light at center stage, a vast “Broadway-style” proscenium arch complete with golden-harp motif, along with a variety of set pieces wheeling on and off, and huge backdrops of a study, a tavern, and a dungeon — this animated set creates a comedy of its own. And of course there’s the face and manuscript of Kafka hanging at center stage above this Kafka-esque world. A large, well-equipped stage manager’s table in the front section amidst the orchestra seats provides Roxanne with a command post from which she vainly attempts to rein in the chaos of this rehearsal. The much acclaimed Mr. Lee, designer of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and at Saturday Night Live since 1974, has designed many Broadway shows, including the current long-running musical Wicked.
Kafka, who, supposedly, actually wrote a play that no longer exists and whose aura does pervade The Understudy and the play-within-the-play, once stated: “There is plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope in the universe — but not for us.” In the end, however, Ms. Rebeck’s indomitable characters and her comedic perspective on the underbelly of the theater world, succeed in transcending the hopelessness and leaving us with a joyful affirmation of life and theater.