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A CurtainUp Review
The Understudy

Theresa Rebeck's Backstage Play Gets the Roxanne it Was Written For At the Roundabout Theater By Elyse Sommer

The Understudy
Mark-Paul Gosselaar & Justin Kirk
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
The Williamstown Theater Festival's Second Stage is often an incubator for plays which will show up a season or two later in New York, if not on Broadway, at a prestigious Off-Broadway theater. Inevitably, the script undergoes some fine tuning during its journey from summer stock showcase to the Big Apple.

One need only to look at the current season's example of celebrity casting's effect on box office sales Theresa Rebeck's The Understudy smartly taps into the celebrity casting mindset: Steady Rain, a good but not great cop story recouped its investment thanks to Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig. . .Jude Law turned the theory that Shakespeare doesn't translate into gold on Broadway on its head. . .the dead on arrival Brighton Beach Memoirs proved that playwright Neil Simon's name on a marquee is no longer a ticket selling magnet unless a play by him features a few household name celebrities.

Savvy observer that she is of the tidbits that are fodder for the cultural scene's gossip columnists, Rebeck has not missed the opportunity to update her script with an allusion to the brouhaha about Jeremy Piven's abrupt departure from Speed the Plow because of mercury poisoning. However, as I predicted at the end of the WTF premiere review reposted below, what's new and different about the production now at the Roundabout Company's Laura Pels Theater is that it has an entirely new cast.

The cast member likely to sell the most tickets at the Roundabout is, of course, Julie White for whom the role of Roxanne was created but who had to withdraw from the summer 2008 WTF premiere to make a movie. On the other hand, Reg Rogers, who so memorably played Harry, the title character, is now one of the star attractions in a celebrity studded revival of another backstage comedy, The Royal Family (review). Having seen the play's premiere at Williamstown, the success of this re-cast transfer is not about any minor script changes but whether Julie White brings a generous dose of additional comic oomph to this backstage comedy; also whether Justin Kirk will give the sort of bravura performance that had Reg Rogers almost steal the show in Williamstown. I'm happy to answer this with a yes on both counts.

White combines the manic energy of her Tony award winning ruthless agent in The Little Dog Laughed with the wistfulness of a woman still smarting from being left at the altar. The fact that her Roxanne has anything but the always calm and in full charge persona one associates with a stage manager, underscores the cleverness of Ms. Rebeck's sendup of the tension that's part of putting on a play.

Much as I loved Rogers as Harry, Justin Kirk nails Harry from start to finish. His opening monologue is even more hilarious than I remember it. Kirk, whose work, like Rogers', I've enjoyed over the years (Old Wicked Songs, Angels in America, Ten Unknowns and Love, Valor and Compassion) combines wry humor with enormous physicality.

The fact that Mark-Paul Gosselaar who plays Jake is best known for TNT's Raising the Bar and s not a seasoned stage actor adds a certain piquancy to this within-the-play casting of a well-known movie actor. Even more so is having this sly sendup of bottom-line oriented producers mounted under the auspices of a company that's hardly averse to celebrity casting. More importantly, Gosselaar acquits himself in the role of the action star who's insecure despite the two million dollar fees that amaze the under-employed Harry, but which pale in comparison to those of the never seen other star of the lost Kafka masterpiece being given an understudy run-through by Roxanne, Harry and Jake.

Under Scott Ellis's direction, all three actors cohere into a strong ensemble. It's to the script's credit that it would probably work even with less elaborate sets. Still, Alexander Dodge's witty rotating set adds a lot to the fun of the unseen, always stoned tech assistant Laura's repeatedly misinterpreting Roxanne's instructions.

Some early reviews acknowledged that The Understudy is fun but put it down as light weight. So what's wrong with light entertainment, as long as it IS fun and entertaining? —not to mention well written, handsomely staged and well acted. Besides, for thos e who want their live theater to offer more than a lot of laughs, Ms. Rebeck did, as noted in my initial review, manage to squeeze a message of sorts in between the chuckles: Life in the theater and the big bucks movie world can be more than a little Kafkaesque.

New York Production Notes
The Understudy by Theresa Rebeck
Directed by Scott Ellis
Cast: Julie White (Roxanne), Mark-Paul Gosselaar (Jake), Justin Kirk (Harry).
Sets: Alexander Dodge
Costumes: Tom Broecker
Lights: Kenneth Posner
Original Music & Sound: Obadiah Eaves (original music and sound)
Stage manager: David H. Lurie
Running Time: 85 minutes without an intermission
Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre 111 West 46th Street 212) 719-1300,
From 10/09/09; opening 11/05/09; closing 1/03/10--extended to 1/17/10.
Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 7:30 PM with Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 PM. Tickets: $70-$80.

Review of World Premiere of The Understudy By Elyse Sommer
Bruce is the King of Everything and Jake is the crown price. Okay let's think of this as a play. Bruce is Richard the Third. Jake is Henry the Fifth. You are spear carrier number seven.— Stage manager Roxanne explaining the pecking order of the newly discovered Kafka masterpiece that's to open on Broadway, cast with two movie stars to insure its success, and with Harry, an experienced stage actor hired to understudy Jake.

I love Kafka. . .He's a beautiful writer, but over time I started to feel a comedy in there. . . the idea of having a two person Kafka masterpiece, in which the two actors would be action stars, seemed like an innately comic idea— and yet possible . . .— Theresa Rebeck explaining how Kafka got into her new comedy in an interview with the production's dramaturge, Liana Thompson. Having worked in theater and film, she is well acquainted with a world where noone would trust a serious work to get attention without a star.
Reg Rogers, the title character of Theresa Rebeck's new comedy, starts things off with a monologue that's so funny that it seems almost too much to expect what follows to be as hilarious or superbly performed. But while this summer in the Berkshires has turned all too many initially sunny days into disappointingly rain soaked ones, The Understudy is indeed nonstop funny.

There's nothing revolutionary about a backstage play, comic or otherwise. But making the play within such a play a newly discovered Kafka masterpiece and with an eye firmly fixed on the bottom line mounting it with two action movie stars, does indeed add a promising new twist to this popular genre.

If, like me, you've followed Rebeck's career as playwright, screen writer and television series producer, you will know her as a writer who consistently comes up with original ideas or turns the tried and true on its head, though the results can be a bit too facile and contrived. Though The Understudy doesn't quite escape this, Ms. Rebeck has not only written a clever comedy about the craziness that's part of putting on a show, but has given Franz Kafka, the neurotic who captured the psychic dread of existence, a new identity as a funny man.

The lost Kafka masterpiece is Ms. Rebeck's building block for a play whose three characters' lives are at once Kafkaesque and very real. The rehearsal of the play is actually a run-through for the understudy roles. Jake (Bradley Cooper), the co-star, is testing out his partner's role with Harry (Reg Rogers) the actor hired to cover him. Somehow, the double understudy thing immediately tickles one's funny bone even though the three-hour Kafka play being readied for Broadway is not a comedy and the back stories of Jake and Harry and their frazzled stage manager Roxanne (Kristen Johnston) also contain the seeds of a darker drama about the tensions that go with careers that do and don't gain altitude. These darker seeds remain pretty much underground as Ms. Rebeck smartly sticks to the comedic impulse that prompted her to write The Understudy.

Rogers' terrific opening scene establishes him as a working (but not often and profitably enough) actor who's unlikely to slip into the understudy's part without having his say. The fact that Harry and Roxanne have a history that ended with her wedding dress hanging in her closet "like a wound" and that Jake, despite his high paying movie career is anxious about a pending major deal, ramps up the comedic tension. Director Scott Ellis insures that the rehearsal scenario and the play being rehearsed mesh smoothly and that every opportunity for laughter is realized.

Rogers is an actor who's consistently impressed me with his ability to inhabit a character, most memorably as one of the Collyer brothers in The Dazzle which Richard Greenberg wrote especially for him and Peter Freshette. Though he probably works much more regularly than Harry, he too isn't the sort of actor to send box office sales zooming. But his performance here is definitely a Wow! Rebeck gifts his financially strapped character (including one in which he declares the actors' life being no more crazy than the office workers' life he experienced as an office temp)— but she also provides him with a chance to do some terrific physical comedy as well as to demonstrate his more serious acting skills.

Though you might see this as very much Rogers' play, his on stage colleagues contribute mightily to the success of this production. Bradley Cooper personifies the handsome, self-assured movie actor having a ball with this live theater gig, yet is never too far from worries about the movie career that pays for his expensive life style. The interaction between the two men, their veiled hostility and eventual bonding is as subtle as it is funny. Kristen Johnston, has ably replaced the originally scheduled Julie White, as Roxanne. She is appropriately manic as the volatile stage manager who recognizes the similarities between her failed relationship with Harry and Kafka's own failure to appreciate a woman who truly loved him.

It's to the script's credit that it would probably work even without Alexander Dodge's stylish revolving sets though there are quite a few laughs as a result of the tech assistant Laura's repeated failures to roll out the right scenery. While Laura is unseen throughout the play, director Ellis has maneuvered a wonderful curtain call for her.

I think Kafka who, according to Ms. Rebeck loved the theater, would appreciate the way she's applied his bleak view of existence to life in the theater and the big bucks movie business but managed to turn despair into comedy. If there's a message squeezed in between the chuckles, it's that life in the theater and the big bucks movie world can be more than a little Kafkaesque. While a play by the dour Kafka would be unlikely to make it to Broadway or Off-Broadway, even if cast with major movie stars, I wouldn't be surprised if The Understudy, like many of these Nikos try-outs does.

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