By Theresa Rebeck
Directed by Joseph W. Ritsch
At the Everyman Theatre through SEPT. 28
A union-mandated understudy for a big Broadway show does somewhat resemble the protagonist of a Franz Kafka novel. You rehearse for a role that you will in all likelihood never perform in public. And given the current state of New York theater, you’re subject to the unexplained whims of bottom-line producers and film/TV celebrities who land the lead roles despite having less stage talent than you.
How much worse would this experience be if you were the understudy in a newly discovered play written by Kafka himself? That’s the conceit of Theresa Rebeck’s very entertaining comedy, “The Understudy,” now at the Everyman Theatre. Like the Chekhov-inspired “Vanya and Sonia” at Center Stage this past spring, “The Understudy” cleverly riffs on a canonical author with loads of laughs and little profundity. And that’s fine.
Rebeck is best known for creating “Smash,” the TV series about mounting a Broadway musical. “The Understudy” boasts the same snappy dialogue and character-driven humor as the Rebeck-written pilot for the TV series. At Everyman, her dialogue gets a great boost from the talented three-person cast and from Daniel Ettinger’s sets, which are simultaneously as impressive as the best Broadway sets and a funny send-up of New York’s most outlandish sets.
Clinton Brandhagen plays the title character, once known as Harry, now known as Robert in yet another effort to jump start his acting career. Brandhagen’s doughy face and slumping posture are perfect for playing put-upon characters, and Everyman often asks him to do just that. Harry/Robert shows up early for rehearsal and takes advantage of the empty stage to parody the actor he’s been hired to understudy: Jake, the star of a recent action flick that grossed $67 million.
With his plump torso and curly brown beard, Harry/Robert looks nothing like an action hero, but he roars out the catch phrase from the film about super-tornadoes, “Get in the trucks.” “I’m not bitter,” he mutters as an aside, before shouting again, “Get in the trucks.” “OK, I’m bitter,” he allows, “but just because I’m bitter doesn’t mean the movie didn’t suck.”
Jake, played by Danny Gavigan as a tall, slim movie star with dark shades, a black leather jacket, and a carefully maintained one-day’s growth of beard, enters the theater and immediately concludes that the maniac on stage waving a prop gun around is a deranged intruder. He asks the stage manager Roxanne (Beth Hylton in chopped-off red hair and a long gray sweater) to call the police. But Roxanne recognizes the stranger as something worse than an armed criminal; he’s the ex-fiancé who jilted her six years earlier.
It’s not a great way to start an afternoon of rehearsals—and it gets a lot worse before it gets better. But the more miserable the three characters are on stage, the more delighted we are in the seats. For what could be funnier than an insecure movie star trying to show off his half-baked knowledge of Kafka and stagecraft? Or an actress-turned-stage-manager trying to act professional while seething with anger at her ex? Or a talented actor itching to interpret a role when he’s expected to copy someone else’s performance?
Whenever one of the three is left alone on stage for a few minutes, he or she complains bitterly about the other two in Shakespearean addresses to the audience. They keep forgetting they’re in a modern theater with loud speakers in the bathrooms and dressing rooms where the other two can hear every word. This is not only a humorous satire of theatrical asides, but also sets up hilariously embarrassing confrontations when the monologists find their own words thrown back in their faces.
Brandhagen is very funny in the title role, displaying the acting chops that gives Harry/Robert the right to be bitter, but also demonstrating the lack of discipline that perhaps explains his lack of success. Hylton has a bigger challenge in playing Roxanne, for her stage manager has to keep the overblown male egos in check and keep the rehearsal on track even as she’s boiling over with anger. Hylton enables us to see the bubbling water in the pot and the lid on top.
But Gavigan has the greatest acting challenge of all: bringing to life a mediocre actor. He has to present Jake as an actor with enough appeal to get work but also with enough limitations to deserve the disdain of better actors, an actor with real aspirations under his careerism and real insecurity beneath his arrogance. Gavigan gets all this and more in a terrific turn.
“The Understudy” may not tell us anything we don’t already know about Kafka, but it does provide a peek into New York theater, and those revelations are comical indeed.