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A CurtainUp Philadelphia Review
The Understudy
What's more terrifying to a man than a woman seething with dismissive rage?.— Roxanne, the stage manager
The Understudy may have knocked them out Off-Broadway, but a funny thing happened on the way to the Wilma in Philadelphia. More accurately, a funny thing didn't happen. [For the storyline and commentary on the Berkshires production 2008 (Review Link)> and the Roundabout Off-Broadway production in 2009 (Link to review) 09)

From the start there is the cutesy, trendy integration of the cell phone thing into the performance. Then a stagey stand-up routine fails to hit its marks as the opening night audience laughs gamely if not heartily. Overall, despite five or six very funny stand-alone lines -- not funny circumstances, just lines-- the play falters as the comedy is stretched thin.

A stage manager (Jenn Harris, who herself understudied Julie White in Roundabout's show) is trying to manage a rehearsal. She is working with a new understudy (Cody Nickell) and a semi hot-property actor who has had some success in movies (Brad Coolidge). Their play is The Castle, a newly discovered dramatic work by Kafka. In reality a novel, The Castle is at heart a black comedy. (BTW, I have it on historical authority that with his ironic sense of the comedy of life, Kafka laughed a good deal as he penned The Metamorphosis.)

David Kennedy directs Theresa Rebeck's play. The actors operate at different reality levels, from 'real' through cartoon. It can be problematic when lines like, "I don't think that's funny. I think it's mugging," are delivered — mugged —- from the stage. Humor is a funny thing. Here first-rate actors struggle with the material. It appears that to make it work The Understudy wants professional comics and stand-up comediennes rather than serious actors. But the extended sketch that constitutes this play is not just a joke. It has heart — a broken heart. A cartoon character harbors negative feelings about having been jilted without warning. The piece also critiques celeb-cred and repeatedly discloses that an actor's life, and an understudy's life in particular, is a rough go. Showbiz is a tough business —- this is news? There is neither enough story nor sufficient evidence of heart to carry this play.

At the Wilma, for the first 20 minutes a bare bulb glares on a light stand. It's hard to look at the stage, what with the small bright light source. It's a distinct relief when, for the remaining 75 minutes, the light is replaced by beautiful and elaborate set pieces and wonderful effects. Despite the fact that this play makes a point of dissing the importance of scenic design, the set wraps itself around this slight comedy like a full length mink around a toy poodle. Of course, the set is not intended for this backstage exchange, but for the Kafka play we don't see that the characters are more or less rehearsing.

These actors clearly knock themselves out trying to make this a good show, but they can only do so much. Has something happened to The Understudy since Off-Broadway? So much for "if you can make it there you can make it anywhere."

The Understudy by Theresa Rebeck
Directed by David Kennedy

Cast: Brad Coolidge, Jenn Harris, Cody Nickell
Set Design: Andrew Boyce
Costume Design: Maiko Matsushima
Lighting Design: Sarah Sidman
Sound Design: Christopher Colucci
Fight consultant: Mike Cosenza
Choreographer: Jaye Lynne Allison
12/29/10- 01/30/11; Opening Jan 5
95 minutes, no intermission
The Wilma Theater, 265 South Broad Street
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 01/05/11 performance.
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