The Understudy – Review by Tom Nissley

There is a kind of half-in half-out employment that is attached to a play running on Broadway. Theresa Rebeck created this sketch about how that works, with a bit of twisted humor that focuses on the underbelly of being an actor. She did it by telling the story of two actors (each an understudy, though one was on stage every night as a second character and the other was off stage unless some emergency happened), and a stage manager, a former actor, now managing a made-up play that might have been written by Kafka. Think Kafka-esque.

Roxanne, the stage manager (Andrea Syglowski), is in the process of rehearsing the new understudy, Harry (Eric Bryant), with the help of an unseen assistant who manages the lights and scene changes from somewhere in a booth in the balcony. The assistant may be stoned, or otherwise distracted, and that means the scene changes or lighting do not always work well. It’s a funny gimmick, though it grows old quickly.

Gimmick Number 2 is that Harry lived with Roxanne for about six years, and then, two weeks before their gala wedding, just disappeared – off to Europe to think things through. She’s taken by surprise to see him today because he signed up for the casting using another name. So, she is also distracted. Rebeck enjoys having these distractions be in full denial. Roxanne denies that she even cares any more but tenses and shakes while she says it. Harry, on the other hand, is distracted because he is a real stage actor and he has just seen a movie with atrocious movie acting by a stud who turns out to be the man he is to understudy, named Jake (Brett Dalton). Jake is distracted because he is waiting to hear if he has made it into another movie, and meanwhile he is the understudy to Bruce (also unseen) who makes ‘real money’ in the movies and plays the lead in this play.

The audience can laugh at the things that go wrong on stage, the things that have gone wrong in these characters’ lives, or the denial. And perhaps the problem situation that exists between two different acting styles and vigorous competition for Roxanne’s approval, on-stage and off. There is at least a hint that Harry would like to start again with Roxanne, and another hint that Jake would like to beat him to it.

There is another gimmick in the script, which is that stage mikes are live and when one actor or Roxanne is in the dressing rooms they can hear everything the others are saying. So, Jake knows that Harry mocks him, and Roxanne knows that the two men are talking about her, etc.

The resolution, if it can be called that, happens when Jake likes a change suggested by Harry and the two men suddenly become chums. They work together to master a dance that concludes the play within the play. Then there’s a surprise that lets out some air from the common balloon, and in the finale, Roxanne joins them in the dance.

The sets (Andrew Boyce) and lighting (Matthew Richards) and sound management (Fitz Patton), each of which is extremely important for the gimmicks, are well done and will not disappoint. David Kennedy directs, and has wisely not inserted an intermission, nor put a damper on the denials.

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Tom Nissley, for the Ridgelea Reviews on Theatre 8-21-18