Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 2008

“I am a woman, I am an American, I am a mother, I sometimes write for television, and I sometimes write movies; I play the piano, I knit, I rail at the universe; I am angry, I am sad; I am a comic realist, a misanthrope, and an idealist. There are many ways to categorize me, and my work. But for myself, I would most like to be considered a playwright.”
– Theresa Rebeck

Theresa Rebeck is one of the hot (relatively) young playwrights of the moment. So is Richard Greenberg, whose The Violet Hour is currently on the boards at Barrington Stage. I thought Greenberg was a pretty snazzy writer until I saw Rebeck’s The Understudy, being given its world premiere on the Nikos Stage at the WTF. Now, THAT’S a playwright!

“When Bad Dates* was so successful, my sister advocated for me writing another play that was just funny. Now, nothing is ever just funny, but I became intrigued to examine a world that you would simply call a comic universe again.”
– Theresa Rebeck

Not surprisingly, the comic universe she chose was the theatre.

Set in a Broadway theatre, The Understudy takes place during an understudy rehearsal for The Castle a long-lost play by Franz Kafka. The two-man play is currently up and running, starring a famous action movie star named Bruce (Hmmmm, what famous action movie stars do we know by that name??), who we never see, and a newly minted action movie star named Jake (Bradley Cooper). Jake is Bruce’s understudy, and at the rehearsal in question Jake meets his understudy, Harry (Reg Rogers), who happens to be the ex-fiance of the stage manager, Roxanne (Kristen Johnston), who is running the rehearsal.

In case you are not of the theatrical persuasion, let me explain a few things. Bruce is the star. If anything happens to him Jake takes over the lead and Harry would go on for Jake, so at this rehearsal Jake is playing Bruce’s part and Harry is playing Jake’s. The stage manager is running the rehearsal because, since the show is set and running, the director is no longer involved. But even if s/he were, it’s just an understudy rehearsal and not worth the director’s valuable time. Understudies are union-mandated insurance but they are basically paid scale NOT to appear.

As if being an actor isn’t humiliating enough, being chosen at an audition to be an understudy is being told “You’re the very person we never want to see appear in our show.” Harry, who has recently changed his name to Robert Merrill because no one wants to hire Harry, assures us that he is NOT bitter about being chosen not to appear in this Kafka work. He is not at all jealous of Jake, who has gotten a big Broadway role simply because his latest film raked in $90 million on its first weekend. No, he is not bitter...well, okay, yes, he is just a little bitter...alright already, he’s BITTER!

Rogers is hilarious and ultimately endearing as Harry. He often speaks directly to the audience, although there is not one in attendance at the fictional rehearsal, but it is Rebeck’s invention that no one ever speaks unheard. Somewhere in the theatre is an unseen techie named Laura, and the loudspeakers are always on so that people on the stage can be heard in every part of the theatre all the time. Presumably only Harry’s opening soliloquy is just between him and us (and maybe Laura, if she’s not too stoned to hear), once Jake and Roxanne arrive nothing is ever private.

Does this sound slightly Kafka-esque? Rebeck knows her Kafka (read dramaturg Liana Thompson’s interview in the center of the program) and the bits of the non-existent Kafka play that she has written are truly brilliant. And that is what makes this play so complete and satisfying where Greenberg’s work, while sharply written, was not. Rebeck has imagined a whole little universe and peopled it with three funny, believable, and all-too-human characters.

Stage managers are the heart and soul of the theatre. They keep everything and everyone together. Its not glamorous work, but its ultimately deeply rewarding in a way that directing and acting and designing are not. You have all the responsibility for running the show and you get to work with wonderful (and exasperatingly) creative people, but the critics never write about you. Rebeck’s Roxanne admits that she is really much too high strung to be a stage manager, she only became one because she couldn’t book acting gigs and desperately needed to stay in the theatre.

Like Harry, Roxanne is a good actor, and Rebeck gives both of them a chance to strut their stuff as they play her faux Kafka. And despite the baggage that comes with being a movie star on Broadway, Jake is not a bad actor himself. These three people are all just victims of a system that functions on looks and money. If you have the right look, you will get the role over someone who can act better but looks wrong. If you are famous or rich or both, it is assumed that you will draw in paying customers the way a talented nobody can’t, and so they’re never given the chance.

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it does it make a noise? If an actor can’t find opportunities to act before an audience, does he cease to exist as an actor? And if he ceases to exist as an actor, does he still exist as a person?

Rogers, as the title character, is the center of the play, and he gives a really smart and entertaining performance, but Cooper is no slouch either. Playing a lesser talent is no easy trick and not something that comes naturally to a truly lesser actor. Cooper is therefore obviously a lot less lesser than he is playing.

Once you have seen this play, you will realize how ironic it is that Johnston came on board as Roxanne only about six weeks ago when Tony-award winner Julie White, a close friend of Rebeck’s originally announced for the role (Rebeck had a hand in the original casting) had to withdraw due to conflicts with an upcoming movie. I wasn’t aware of this until after I had seen the play but while I was watching it all I could think was, “I wouldn’t have picked Kristen Johnston for this role.” Not that Johnston isn’t attractive, talented, AND a bankable household name following her Emmy Award-winning five-year run on Third Rock from the Sun (which sadly masks her excellent stage credentials from most of the American public), but she is not quite right for Roxanne. Damn, not only this whole situation, but this entire paragraph is ridiculously ironic and there’s nothing I can do about. Truth trumps fiction once again.

Rebeck is a feminist and here she subtly gives the women all the power. I mentioned how stage managers secretly run the theatre, well so do the techies. You can’t perform in the dark, and while you can perform on a bare stage in street clothes, these days most actors can’t perform unamplified (or at least modern theatres are not built to enable them to do so). The unseen Laura secretly exercises her power by changing sets and lights whenever she sees fit, but never when or how she is asked, forcing Roxanne and the actors to change the order of the scenes they are rehearsing.

Alexander Dodge has designed four fabulous sets – one a “bare stage” and the other three sets for the Kafka play – and it is fun to watch them revolve and rearrange themselves right before your eyes, with Ken Posner’s lighting design keeping pace. Obadiah Eaves has done a fine job with a sound design that truly allows voices to emanate from different corners of the theatre.

This is the fourth in an unbroken series of impressive Nikos Stage productions this season and the second outstanding world premiere. What fun to get to see great theatre birthed here in Williamstown again. This all bodes well for Nicholas Martin’s tenure as the Artistic Director of the WTF, which also produced Rebeck’s The Water’s Edge in 2004, their last year in the old Adams Memorial Theatre complex and under Michael Ritchie’s leadership. New leadership, more Rebeck, this is all good.

The Understudy runs through August 3 on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission and is suitable for theatre buffs and Kafka scholars 12 and older. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-597-3400.

* “Bad Dates” will be presented in January 2009 at new Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare & Company starring Elizabeth Aspenlieder.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008

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