The Understudy” a hit 21st-century comedy for all ages

 By Tony Schillaci and Don Church

Don’t believe the tired old rumor that the theater is dying. Young and innovative new playwrights such as Theresa Rebeck are keeping it alive with compelling new plays, including the hilarious and satirical “The Understudy” at Hartford’s TheaterWorks.

The Pulitzer Prize-nominee Ms. Rebeck has come up with an inventive and engrossing spin on the age-old ‘back-stage’ comedy genre. She cleverly, with tongue firmly in cheek, explores the personal and professional lives of two actors, a stressed-out stage manager, and a stoned craftsperson - unseen and unheard throughout - whose job it is to make the lights, sounds, and sets work in perfect harmony with the actors and the play. To these irresistible circumstances, add more plausible conflict and tension with the producers (unseen) who are ready to close the show.  

The plot itself is a breath of fresh air: It’s a play-within-a-play reminiscent of the novels and stories of the controversial existentialist Franz Kafka. The premise is a Broadway-bound ‘undiscovered masterpiece” by Kafka in which Ms. Rebeck creates irrational and farcical characters, who try to survive in the precarious world of show business. And you don’t have to be familiar with Kafka’s work to enjoy this superb comedy. If you have ever experienced failure or rejection, dark days and haunted nights, and have even an iota of a sense of humor, you’ll identify and laugh with the characters and action all the way through to the final curtain.

The highly acclaimed director Rob Ruggiero (his hugely successful “Show Boat” is currently playing at the Goodspeed Opera House) has, as usual, recruited a first-rate cast, craftspeople, producer, and his usual well thought-out vision to create a delightful piece of theater.

Andrew Benator, as Harry the understudy, gets the most out of every line and opportunity for a good laugh or a poignant moment as the title character. The result is a not-to-be-missed angst-driven comedic performance.  Jayne Paterson is equally first-rate as Roxanne, the stage manager, who has to deal with the conflicts and tension between the actors and a stoned sound, lighting, scenery techie, the unseen Laura, whose character adds wonderful sight gags to this fast paced comedy. Matthew Montelongo, as Jake, an ‘action flick’ movie star, who urgently wants to be regarded as a ‘legit’ stage star, does a fine job of keeping up with the breathtaking performances of Mr. Benator and Ms. Paterson.  

Luke Hege-Cantarella’s sets are eye-popping in the way he uses an effective basic background that with well-managed changes become the play-within-a play’s on- stage and back-stage settings, a darkly Kafkaesque thunder storm, and a skillfully rendered perspective set that has a long path through a cobblestone alley leading to an ominous castle in the background.  Scott Bolman’s lighting, Vincent Olivieri’s sound and Amy Clark’s costume designs also add greatly to the successful team effort that includes the actors, playwright and the director.

IF YOU GO...(Don’t miss it!)

WHAT: “The Understudy”

WHEN: Through September 18

WHERE: TheaterWorks, Hartford, Conn.

TICKET PRICES:  $15 - $50

BY PHONE:  860-527-7838

ONLINE: www.theaterworkshartford.org

Copyright 2011. Critics On The Aisle. All rights reserved.

Published on Examiner.com, August 25, 2011, and will be online at Resident.com and the print edition of “Metroline New Magazine” on September 8, 2011

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