The good thing about me seeing Amphibian Stage Productions’ production of The Understudy, which opened last weekend, is that I’d seen the New York production starring the inimitable Julie White, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, and Justin Kirk. The bad thing about me seeing Amphibian Stage Productions’ production of The Understudy is that I’d seen New York production starring the inimitable Julie White, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, and Justin Kirk. It’s a catch-22, and begs the question, is it even fair to compare? Yes and no.
Judging by the fact that she quietly exited the NBC show after its first semiabysmal season, playwright Theresa Rebeck didn’t quite find the hit she wanted in Smash, her latest TV venture about the making of a Broadway musical. But in The Understudy, which first opened in 2008, she mines the tropes of modern theater (and movie-making) for comic relief. Celebrity casting to boost box office sales, especially, comes under satirical and farcical fire.
The frazzled Roxanne (Sarah Koestner) is a stage manager stuck in a rehearsal from hell—she’s breaking in Henry (Chuck Huber), the bitter new understudy who, surprise, just happens to be her ex-fiancée. Jake (Carman Lacivita), the first understudy who takes over the leading role from an unseen A-lister, is a Hollywood action hero type looking for some credibility. He’s also precisely the sort of star Henry loathes. Consider that the tech girl, Laura, is high, changing scenery and lights on a THC-induced whim, and that the play is based on a newly discovered manuscript by Franz Kafka, and you’ve got a rehearsal from hell. In fact, it’s positively Kafkaesque.
The first time I saw this, my stomach hurt from laughing so hard. Theresa Rebeck’s caustic comic sensibilities are uniquely her own, and her particular behind-the-scenes Broadway world is a myopic place where theater actors openly disdain movie stars, and yet harbor extreme jealousy for the salaries these stars command, and where talented-but-lesser-known performers are overlooked for starring roles on Broadway in favor of casting a celebrity. There are, of course, no silver screen stars here—just good theater actors. From the second he runs onstage, prop gun in hand, Huber looks the part of an artist committed to the life-long struggle—jeans, wrinkled collared shirt, blazer, plus his own sort of scruffy charm. His hair looks like he’s perpetually running his hands through it in frustration about the state of the theater. But Huber takes awhile to get warmed up, and never quite seems to settle in completely. For Harry’s bitter opening monologue, a mocking, self-deprecating rant about an action movie that made millions at the box office that weekend (turns out, he’d auditioned for a small part and been turned down), Huber is almost too effeminate, and doesn’t quite land the first of the show’s many running auditory and visual gags: an imitation of Jake’s performance in the aforementioned movie with lines of dialogue like “Get down!” and “Get in the truck!”
Koestner is generous as Roxanne, allowing the boys to play off her and shine. She’s obviously exasperated, but clinging to an inner strength that wasn’t quite as funny, nor as fatalistic, as Julie White’s interpretation. It’s a good difference—I felt for her much more. Director René Moreno has blended all the disparate elements well enough, and keeps things moving through the weaker moments, most of which occur when Jake and Henry are rehearsing the actual Kafka script. In these moments, the younger Lacivita seems the more natural talent, while Huber still a little tense. And though the Kafka stuff is hilarious, the play, which requires some specific set pieces, seemed cramped and claustrophobic. It works in some ways, to emphasis the push and pull between Jake, Henry, and Roxane, but the close quarters didn’t allow for much of that “stage magic” that sometimes appears almost like a fourth character (puppeted by Laura, of course, the arbitrary that controls the fate of the rehearsal by decided what scene they’ll rehearse and when).
The Understudy‘s shortcomings—a too-neat set up, convenient entrances and exits of one actor or another that allows the two left on stage to spar (and/or smooch, as the case may be), an uneven script—are certainly worth mentioning, though they’ve been mentioned before and by better writers than I. But I love how unapologetically unsubtle it is, how unabashedly ridiculous. Of course, Rebeck has structured this play so that you don’t have to look for meaning anything if you don’t want to; and you don’t have to know too much about the backstage business to keep up. You can laugh before it’s funny, or you can laugh because you understand. Either way, everyone in the audience is on the same page.
Photo: Daylon Walton