"The Understudy" at Hartford TheaterWorks

By Tom Nissley

“The Understudy,” by Teresa Rebeck, opened at TheaterWorks Hartford last night. Directed by Rob Ruggerio, with a splendid cast, it runs until September 18. It is clever, funny, and if you’re in the mood to contemplate the meaning of life, inspiring. Very worth a go.

“The Understudy” details the fragile tasks involved with making a living as an actor. Harry (Andrew Benator) has been hired to be the understudy for Jake (Matthew Montelongo), who himself is the understudy for Bruce (not here, but a BIG star in movies), who is playing the lead in a ‘newly discovered’ and btw completely fabricated play by Franz Kafka. During a rehearsal arranged by Stage Manager Roxanne (Jayne Patterson) we get to see a run through of the show in which Harry is supposed to be learning all the moves, in case he ever gets to step into the Bruce’ role.

Things we learn along the path: 1.Harry was almost married to Roxanne six years ago, but he fled to Europe instead of tying the knot. He changed his professional name, so she didn’t know he was her ex until he showed up. 2. Jake, who has already made it into films, and therefore money, is hoping for a bigger part in a bigger movie. 3. Harry, who hasn’t made it into anything but the position of understudy, is a skilled actor who knows some method(s) for getting into the meaning of the roles he’s playing. 4. Getting into the meaning of the role is not what an understudy is supposed to do. 5. Roxanne is a fine actress too, but she has the job of Stage Manager to keep from starving. 6. ‘Kissing up’ is a good way to advance both self and others while struggling to maintain a meaningful society. 7. Life is tough, and 8. The force may be with you if you keep dancing.

“The Understudy” is a master class putting forth the pathos of “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” from Ruggerio’s other nearby success - “Showboat” at Goodpeed - in clear focus. Andrew Benator is perfect for the role of the beleaguered Harry, and Jayne Patterson is great fun as the kingpin stage manager, swallowing the shock of working with an ex she once firmly discarded, and at the same time seeing how she could have been cast in this play if it wasn’t written only for male actors. Matthew Montelongo’s Bruce is the most challenging of the roles in the play, IMHO, because he’s stuck between success and the vision of more success. Kissing up appears, at moments, to be kissing down, when Bruce gets intrigued by what Harry’s insight offers. Montlongo does it very well.

Luke Hegel-Catarella’s set design is wondrous, and costumes, sound, lighting are beautifully worked, too. Mr. Ruggerio is a very skilled director who specializes in gently packaging the whole product into a cooperative venture that respects both actors and audience.Wow. Reach TheaterWorks very fine audience coordinator (Josh Demers) at 860-527-7838, or on the web at www.theaterworkshartford.org

Tom Nissley - August 13, 2011

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