Metamorphosis meets The Actor’s Nightmare in Theresa Rebeck’s boisterous and mind-bending comedy The Understudy, a satisfying season-opener at Everyman Theatre directed with absurdist elation by Joseph W. Ritsch.
The Understudy combines the farcical backstage antics of Noises Off with Kafkaesque flourishes in a 90-minute play-within-a-play that on the surface deals with rehearsals for a newly discovered Franz Kafka play but also is concerned with mankind’s attempts to maintain the illusion of control in a ludicrous universe.
You know you’re dealing in the realm of fantasy when the main conceit of The Understudy involves a dense, three-hour Kafka play that is a sold-out hit on Broadway. But that is probably not due to Kafka’s existentialist angst, but because an action movie star, the one-named Bruce (an unseen mega-celebrity), is playing the title role.
Bruce is so big he can even dictate that a lower-tier action star, the suavely studly Jake (Danny Gavigan), be his understudy. Jake, however, gets no such rights–his understudy is the shaggy Harry (Clinton Brandhagen), a “real” actor who reels off his credits, among them, “Law and Order” and a Chekhov festival.
In an nonsensical turn, Harry starts off the play by breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the audience—brooding on how he got to this place and insisting “not that I’m bitter” and “not that I’m a failure.” In this opening scene and throughout, Brandhagen shows his mastery of the everyman character, bringing out the warmth and acuity of this unfinished schlub who just wants to make something meaningful out of his life. His Harry shows intellect and heart, particularly when he is trying to explain what Kafka’s words do to his heart when he says them aloud.
With assistance from the frazzled stage manager Roxanne (Beth Hylton), Jake tries to lead Harry through a run-through of the play in an empty Broadway house—recreated with affectionate detail by set designer Daniel Ettinger. But strange things keep happening—sets roll in out of sequence, sound cues never arrive, the lights go out or wander all over the stage.
Closes Sept 28
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1 hour, 35 minutes no intermission
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Reality also intrudes. Roxanne is bearing a steamer trunk load of emotional baggage, most of it having to do with Harry. Hylton bristles with tetchiness as Roxanne, who tries to rein in the chaos by sucker-punching it to the ground. However, Hylton reveals another side of Roxanne in a speech about Kafka and women—pointedly, the lack thereof in his works—where, in a display of power and command, she shows just how much richer those plays and stories would be with soupcon of estrogen.
Jake tries to be “in the moment,” but is distracted by a pending movie deal. Gavigan nails the cockiness of a movie star, but also surprises us with a Jake who digs into Kafka with brainy ardor and who displays sensitivity and insight when expressing the strain and indignities of trying to stay in the public’s favor.
Plays about show-biz are a guilty pleasure and theater buffs will revel in barbs leveled at big-name Hollywood stars invading Broadway, especially the incident in 2008 when “Entourage’s” Jeremy Piven bowed out of a Broadway production of Speed the Plow, citing mercury poisoning from too much sushi.
Rebeck also pokes fun at Kafka, with references to The Trial, The Castle, Metamorphosis (at one point Jake calls Harry “a bug”) and other works that most erudite audience members should get. Even if you are clueless about Kafka, The Understudy will resonate in its light-hearted treatment of people cast adrift in a world rushing by them like a runaway carousel.
The Understudy by Theresa Rebeck . Directed by Joseph W. Ritsch . Featuring Clinton Brandhagen, Danny Gavigan and Beth Hylton . Scenic design: Daniel Ettinger . Lighting design: Jay Jerzog . Costume design: Kathleen Geldard . Sound design: Neil McFadden . Fight Choreographer: Lewis Shaw . Props mater: Jilliam Matthews . Dramaturg: Naomi Greenberg-Slovin . Stage manager: Amanda M. Hall . Produced by Everyman Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.
Closes September 28
Geoffrey Himes . BaltimoreCityPaper cleverly riffs on a canonical author with loads of laughs and little profundity
Tim Smith . Baltimore Sun there’s something to be said for a play that manages to mix humor and hubris; bromance and bananas;
Anthony C. Hayes . Baltimore Post-Examiner Rebeck’s dialogue is peppers with dark comedic lines and lots of insider jokes.
Amanda Gunther . TheatreBloom Silence is not beautiful. Understudies are not bitter.
Jack L. B. Gohn . BroadwayWorld Is Theresa Rebeck serious? In The Understudy, a play where the audience is constantly laughing, is she reaching for something profound?
Robert Michael Oliver . DCMetroTheaterArts Theresa Rebeck’s The Understudy opened this week to a chorus of satiric laughs and biting, insightful one-liners.
April Forrer . MDTheatreGuide …begins as a seemingly simplistic comedy about the trials of being an underpaid and underused actor, …becomes a lesson in profound, stark truths.
Jack L.B. Gohn . TheBigPicture full of affectionate insider humor