“This business sucks”, observes Jake, a popular action movie star and one of three characters in Theresa Rebeck’s hit-or-miss backstage comedy, “The Understudy”, currently on the boards at the Westport Country Playhouse. The “business” Jake refers to is “show” and Rebeck offers an insider’s look at the world of Hollywood and Broadway with plenty of cynicism and, occasionally, some hope. Like the world of showbiz itself, however, the play is a mixed bag.
“The Understudy” opens with a monologue by disgruntled actor Harry (Eric Bryant), who is currently going by another stage name for reasons that will remain a mystery. Harry has arrived at the theatre to take part in a rehearsal for his recent hire as the understudy to Jake (Brett Dalton). That rehearsal, under the direction of stage manager Roxanne (Andrea Syglowski), makes up most of the 100 minute running time (no intermission) of “The Understudy”. It’s not always a smooth run.
As Roxanne attempts to conduct the rehearsal of a three-hour, untitled play by Franz Kafka, there is immediate hostility between the actors due to Harry’s jealousy and Jake’s insecurity. We also learn that Harry was set to marry Roxanne but left days before the actual wedding. Jake is distracted throughout the rehearsal as he waits for a call to hear if he got a career-changing role in a new movie. In addition, there’s the offstage, never-seen crew member who is stoned and continually ignores Roxanne’s directions regarding light, sound and set cues. In “The Understudy”, there is far more drama offstage than on.
The prolific Theresa Rebeck clearly knows the world she’s writing about as she assumes her audience will understand the difference between Equity and SAG unions or what a “put-in rehearsal” is. There is also an in-joke about Jeremy Piven from 2009 (when the show debuted) that got zero reaction from the early preview I caught of the play. It might be time for Rebeck to update the comedy for future performances. But the biggest problem with her script is one of tone. We never know, for example, how she or we are supposed to feel about the Kafka play that is a crucial part of the show. The actors consider it a masterpiece but the scenes we witness are patently ludicrous and it’s doubtful that without stars in the roles, it would never have a run on Broadway. That may well be Rebeck’s point, but it’s never really clear in the writing.
While the play has its problems, including several lulls in dramatic build, none of them lie with the actors who are pitch-perfect under David Kennedy’s steady direction. Bryant is an endearing presence who is a good enough actor to make you believe that the doubtful Jake would eventually come around to admiring his abilities. The hunky Dalton is ideally cast as the preening star who nonetheless is likable enough to make you root for his chance at getting a new film role. The harried Syglowski plays controlled fury with generous amounts of barely concealed rage. The three actors are a crack acting ensemble and the final tableau that finds them dancing together under falling snow nearly makes up for the lapses in the writing. That dance, by the way, is creatively staged by the notable actor/choreographer Noah Racey.
Andrew Boyce’s surprising set pieces for the Kafka play add a witty visual picture to the proceedings and Matthew Richards’ lighting with Fitz Patton’s sound design contribute plenty of character. In all, there are enough funny lines and engaging performances in “The Understudy” to make it worth the trip to Westport.
“The Understudy” continues at the Westport Playhouse through September 1. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 203.227.4177 or visit: www.westportplayhouse.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.