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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Review of World Premiere of The Understudy By Elyse Sommer
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.