“The Understudy” cleverly portrays several layers of reality. On the surface it’s a satire about life in the theatre. Dig a little deeper and it’s about absurdities and daily frustrations, personal relationships and human frailties, plus, it contains elements of Franz Kafka’s writings and 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 a Zionist who held Socialistic beliefs. He was born in Prague, now capitol of Czech Republic, where a museum is dedicated to him. His strange, existential expressions about life’s fruitless struggles became very popular in Europe after his death in 1924, and when World War II broke out later. Since Kafka wrote in German and many of his words had double meanings, his works were not easily translated or understood here. “The Trial,” a newly discovered satire about an innocent man finding himself entrapped by an archaic legal system, is partially re-enacted as a play within a play during “The Understudy.” The politics of human nature, which is neatly woven in on different levels throughout Rebeck’s work, has also been influenced by Kafka’s writings.
The 75 minute production, with no intermission, focuses on three characters: “Harry” (Eric Bryant) the very complex “Understudy,” Jake” (Brett Dalton) the well-paid leading actor credited with being an “action film star,” and “Roxanne”(Andrea Syglowski), the very frustrated stage manager who also happens to be Harry’s former sweetheart.
One could say that the opening scene of “The Understudy” 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.” The understudy then laments before the stage curtain, 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 Jake and the Stage Manager arrive, it is revealed that everyone associated with this production has frustrations with their personal life, with each other, and with the Kafka play itself. Besides all this, the off-stage technical person (who never appears) apparently has some “pull” with the producer. She is on drugs and therefore not paying attention to the sound, lighting or scenery and there’s nothing anyone can do.
One of the highlights is when the Stage Manager walks off in frustration leaving Bryant and Dalton to play off each other while sitting on top of a table eating the props – two bananas. If you think in “Kafkaesque” terms, you might compare them to monkeys discussing the meaning of life while trying to determine how to act out the play’s scene.
This is a nicely acted production under the direction of David Kennedy. Some very amusing dance of life choreography is by Noah Racey.
Plays through September 1st Tickets: 203-227-4177