Theresa Rebeck’s The Understudy is a refreshing backstage comedy that resists all the self-indulgent clichés to which the genre is so susceptible. It manages to be self-aware while avoiding the insider jokes which can sometimes alienate an audience, and it succeeds in using theater as a metaphor for life without inflating its own importance. Most impressively is its ability to explore love, desire, and art while maintaining a consistent light-heartedness of tone.
Hapless but sincere Harry (Adam Green) arrives at rehearsal for a role he’s landed as an understudy to action movie star, Jake (JD Taylor), in a Broadway play (“Kafka’s last masterpiece!”) that has been having a successful run in no small part due to the star power of Jake and his costar, an even bigger blockbuster movie star named Bruce (whom we never meet). The first sound we hear is an offstage gunshot: Harry is alone in the theater but has found a prop handgun and finds it delightfully ironic to play at being the action star: he’s seen Jake’s newest movie, and is not impressed.
He is a artist. He has principles and sees himself enriching the world through the calling of acting. (He may be just the tiniest bit bitter). Jake arrives as Harry exits, and unable to find a garbage can for his empty coffee cup while on the phone, he simply tosses it on the stage: somebody will be along to clean it up later. Jake seems to be everything Harry has described: aloof, callous, conceited, and vacuous. While Harry is rehearsing to be Jake’s understudy, Jake is rehearsing to be Bruce’s: so if something happens to Bruce, Jake goes on for him and Harry, in turn, goes on for Jake. Got that? These things can be confusing, but that’s what stage managers are for, and Rebeck gives us a great one in Roxanne, terrifically played by Danielle Skraastad.
Roxanne is a bit strung out to begin with, what with being charged with running an understudy rehearsal with a self-centered movie star and an idealistic ‘artist’; the erratic stoner in charge of the tech booth isn’t helping matters. As the play progresses, we learn that Harry and Roxanne are ex-lovers who have happened, by some random force of the universe, to end up working together, the first time they’ve seen one another since Harry left days before their wedding several years ago.
All of these characters are richer than they seem at first. Rebeck juxtaposes Harry’s ideals with his sense of pragmatism when it comes to getting the job done. Jake may be a jerk, but he eventually reveals that he has goals not so very distant from Harry’s, and is far from the vacuous soulless individual he first appears to be. Roxanne also slowly reveals more of the person she really is behind the capable, frustrated stage-manager.
The gradual revelation of each of these character’s complexities owes much to the performances, as well as to the insightful direction of Adam Immerwahr. The production is sharp and funny, the play’s philosophical meditations coming across as organic and unforced. The final scene is a delight, bringing a whimsical conclusion to their nightmare rehearsal and showing that sometimes the only answer is to forget it all and dance.