A spotlight, often harsh and unflattering, is being directed at the angst and agonies of acting, the trials and the triumphs, by playwright Theresa Rebeck in her intimate offering “The Understudy” being showcased at Westport Country Playhouse until Saturday, September 1. “The Understudy” provides a comic look at what it means to be permanently in the wings, word perfect and primed, for a chance at the big time. For that is the fate of the understudy, ready and willing but unlikely to ever get his chance on stage.
German/Jewish novelist Franz Kafka, whose works were mainly ignored in his lifetime, would seem a strange source of material for a current play on Broadway. Known for his themes of hopelessness and absurdity, however, one might see the method that playwright Theresa Rebeck found in making a newly discovered Kafka play the skeleton upon which she fleshes out her new comedy.
Enter from stage left, Harry, not your most eager and grateful actor, so capably neurotic in the hands of Eric Bryant. He doesn’t have a lot of respect for the muscle bound actor he is “covering” for, an action star who commands big bucks but has little legitimate stage quality. Harry, in his opening monologue, manages to disparage the man, Jake, his megabucks movie and the acting profession in general.
Bryant calls the role “theatrical therapy” as it reveals the real struggles and anxieties of actors as they go on stage. He feels there is a supreme powerlessness in acting, as one is constantly begging for a job. His co-stars Brett Dalton who plays Jake and Andrea Syglewski who inhabits the stage manager Roxanne agreed that it is great to be employed, but each role has a beginning and an end. It’s not an easy business. All three agreed that Rebeck depicts their passion, their soul and their bitterness and how saying the lines, on stage, with an audience, is its own reward. Whereas in most plays, actors escape themselves in their characters, this is different. Here they bring their personal neuroses to the job, and have to live in the logic of the lines, and live in the moment. Still they all stated the play offers a window into the actor’s world, why they love it, and the absurdity of it all.
For his part, Jake, a manly Brett Dalton, is also waiting for his major break-through role but is willing to pay his dues and give Kafka a fighting chance. As the two men meet on stage for the first time, it is all stage manager Roxanne can do to prevent them from coming to blows. Yet by the play’s end, they share a significant moment that makes all the struggle supremely worthwhile.
Poor Roxanne, a wonderfully exasperated Andrea Syglowski, has a lot to contend with on her theatrical plate: her star and his understudy have an instant dislike for each other, the understudy is presuming to rewrite the script, both men are eating the props, an unseen light, sound and scenery tech Laura is stoned on drugs, the unseen star Bruce is casting his huge shadow over the rehearsal process and Roxanne quickly discovers the understudy has changed his name and is really her ex-fiancee who jilted her at the altar. What is a girl to do for an encore? David Kennedy mines the play for maximum laughter at the expense of the art of show business.
For tickets ($30 and up), call the Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport, off route 1 at 203-227-4177 or 888-927-7529 or online at www.westportplayhouse.org. Performances are Tuesday at 7 p.m., Wednesday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.
The show must go on, unless it doesn’t, in this comic behind the curtains look at theater, passions, egos, wounded hearts, warts and all.