By Marlene S. Gaylinn

“The Understudy,” portrays several layers of reality in a very amusing fashion. On the surface it’s a satire about life in the theatre. Dig a little deeper, and it is about the daily absurdities and frustrations that most of us encounter. The play is also about personal relationships and human frailties PLUS it contains elements of Franz Kafka’s plays, including his surrealistic humor plus references to his schizoid personality, and socialist philosophy.

One can sit back and simply enjoy the actors’ antics but to thoroughly appreciate this ingenious work by award-winning, playwright, Theresa Rebeck, it helps to know a little about Franz Kafka. Kafka was Jewish, he held Zionist/Socialist beliefs, and lived in Prague, where there is a museum dedicated to him. His strange, existential, writings about life’s fruitless struggles became very popular in Europe after his death in 1924. Because he wrote in German and many of his words had double meanings, he was not easily translated or understood here. Kafka’s play, “The Trial,” is partially re-enacted during “The Understudy.” The politics of human nature and some scenes - which are not prudent to reveal here, have also been influenced by Kafka’s writings.

The 75 minute play, with no intermission, focuses on three characters: “Harry” (Andrew Benatore) - the very complex understudy, “Jake” (Matthew Montelongo) - the play’s leading actor and an action movie star, and “Roxanne”(Jayne Patterson) - a very frustrated stage manager.

One could say that the opening scene “begins with a bang.” Harry arrives early for rehearsal and for no apparent reason, carefully takes aim at the audience and shoots off the gun that is supposed to be used as a prop by the leading man, “Jake.” As a man of many faces, Benator’s character laments that audiences of today cater to silly, action movies and that the only reason Jake got the leading role in this major Broadway play was because of three words in his last film: “Get In The Truck,’ which Harry amusingly attempts to pronounce several different ways.

When his rivals Jake and the Stage Manager, Roxanne walk in, it is revealed that everyone associated with this production has frustrations with their personal life, with each other, and with the play itself. Besides all this, the technical person, who has some “pull” with the producer, is on drugs and not paying attention to the sound, lighting or scenery. While everything, including the imaginative scenery by Luke Cantarella, is askew, it so happens that the play they are rehearsing is based on a recently discovered work by Kafka. Naturally, what follows is a heated dispute as to how this difficult play should be interpreted and performed.

One of the highlights is when the Stage Manager walks off in frustration leaving Benator and Montelongo to magnificently play off each other while sitting on top of a table eating the props - two bananas. If you think “Kafkaesque” you might recall two monkeys discussing the meaning of life while trying to analyze how to act out the play they are working on.

The role of “Harry” seems to have been made for Benator. He brought the house down in Theatreworks’ unforgettable, “Lobby Hero.” Montelongo and Jayne Paterson are just as entertaining. Every phrase can be easily heard and savored. Under the intelligent direction of Rob Ruggiero, the three actors make an enjoyable ensemble. It’s a delightful, very intriguing production.

Plays through Sept. 18
Tickets: 860-527-7838

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