Theresa Rebeck’s whip-smart and wickedly funny backstage comedy, “The Understudy,” at Westport Country Playhouse through September 1, is markedly less smart, wicked, or funny due to director David Kennedy’s problematic casting choices. In a three-character play, it seems fair to expect spot-on casting; however, here, one actor (Brett Dalton) completely steals the show, and since Dalton is not playing the titular understudy, this production goes seriously awry.
Rebeck’s terrific conceit is that a long lost play by Franz Kafka, author of such existentially nightmarish novels as “The Trial” and “The Castle,” has been found, and that the play is getting a Broadway run starring big name Hollywood actors. Of course, she is satirizing the increasingly common practice of putting film stars onstage, whether they belong there or not, in order to draw audiences; and she’s also satirizing Hollywood itself, where action stars are paid in the millions per (meaningless) film, and casting is based on whim, rather than talent.
The characters in “The Understudy” play out these themes through a “put-in” rehearsal, in which the understudy (Harry, an actor passionate about creating a great performance) rehearses with Jake, the action star whose role Harry would step into should a mishap occur. Running the rehearsal is the alternately frustrated, furious, and beleaguered Roxanne, an actress-turned-stage manager (never a happy career move), who is most surprised to find that Harry, with whom she has some unhappy history, is the understudy she must prepare for a billion-to-one chance of actual stage time.
Harry opens the play with one of Rebeck’s terrifically funny monologues and his role, as written, is a comic masterpiece. Kennedy has cast Eric Bryant, who was so very strong in the disturbing “The Invisible Hand” at Westport and TheaterWorks, also directed by Kennedy. But here the director seems to have no sense of humor, doing nothing to help Bryant play the many facets—bitter, hopeful, angry, bewildered, tender, and romantically inept, to name just a few—that make us root for Harry while we laugh at him, in the most affectionate way. Bryant’s Harry is more irritable than understandably frustrated and lacks the drive and energy that should power both the role and the comedy.
As Roxanne, Andrea Syglowski fares a bit better, but she is best in her rages, while her significant pain in connection with Harry—captured, especially, in another of Rebeck’s brilliant monologues—comes across as more angry than hurt. Again, Kennedy loses the chance to help his actress mine the role for its quirky combination of humor and heartbreak.
As Jake, however, Brett Dalton hits every note, and though his role hasn’t struck me as central in other productions I’ve seen, here he is the one you watch, care about, and admire. His Jake is happy to have fed at Hollywood’s laden table, but after his most recent action/disaster flick (“Get in the truck! Get in the truck!”), he genuinely wants to prove himself a serious actor, worthy of Kafka’s genius. Moreover, he has done his homework: he understands the play far better than either of the other two, and he understands Kafka’s soul. Because he also looks like everyone’s stereotype of a gorgeous Hollywood hunk, his grasp of Kafka’s all-but impenetrable plot is all the more hilarious.
One could argue that Laura (whom we never see), the pot-smoking, clueless technician in the booth, is a fourth character in the play, and in terms of creating a surrealistic atmosphere, one could also argue that Laura and Kafka have a great deal in common. Where Kennedy’s direction shines is in the technical elements of the production. He has assembled a gifted artistic team, with Andrew Boyce designing the set, Maiko Matsushima designing the costumes, Matthew Richards creating the evocative lighting, and Fitz Patton in charge of the eerie sound. Make sure to look, too, at the whole space as you walk in: Kennedy has transformed the intimate Westport theater into a Broadway house.
The Understudy” continues performances at Westport Country Playhouse in Westport, CT through September 1, 2018. For tickets, please go to www.westportplayhouse.org or call the box office at 203-227-4177.