Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Review: The Understudy

I attended a performance of the new Theresa Rebeck play The Understudy.  Rebeck is responsible for such other works as Omnium Gatherum, Bad Dates and The Water's Edge.  The play stars Julie White (Tony Award for The Little Dog Laughed), Justin Kirk (Showtimes's Weeds, HBO's Angels in America) and Mark-Paul Gosselaar (Raising the Bar, NYPD Blue, and yes, Saved By The Bell).  The production is directed by Scott Ellis.

In short - I loved it.

The premise is simple.  A hit play featuring two movie stars (a production of an obscure work by Kafka no less) is running on Broadway.  For contractual reasons, an understudy is hired in case 1) the lesser of the two movie stars gets sick, or 2) the bigger star gets sick and the lesser star has to cover his role.  The understudy shows up and turns out to be the man who left the harried stage manager jilted at the altar seven years ago.  Hilarity ensues.

No, that's too simplistic.  The hilarity that ensues encompasses meditations on stardom, artistic legitimacy, the perks and perils of throwing your hat in with popular culture, the tension between art and profit, the cruel nature of love and our fear of it, the ugly truth about life upon the wicked stage, even the Kafka-esque nature of life.  And so much more.

The actors are all uniformly excellent.  They have terrific chemistry with each other and thoroughly dig into their roles and the play's rich material.  Julie White is a brilliant comic actress who also beautifully conveys the humanity and pain buried in her character.  Justin Kirk also turns in a marvelously layered comic performance of an actor who has been ground down by the business but still loves his craft.  Mark-Paul Gosselaar impressively holds his own as a seemingly vapid movie dude who occasionally allows cracks of vulnerability and genuine artistic joy to peak through his crafted veneer.

I must also confess that the young Gosselaar looks extremely fine and quite strapping in his jeans and t-shirt.

There is also an offstage character who is only referred to repeatedly by the cast, Laura the pot-head light and sound technician, but she is evoked perfectly through the technical mishaps that continually plague this rehearsal from Hell.

Director Scott Ellis keeps the energy onstage constantly crackling, allowing the story to unfold perfectly.  Things never get to shrill and all the performances and production elements are in-synch and beautifully balanced.

If I have any quibble with the production, it is that the character of Harry, who is the titular understudy, sometimes has these soliloquies directed to the audience.  He handles them adroitly and they are very entertaining but they kind of stick out oddly from the rest of the play.  The playwright ideally should have found a way to incorporate what she had to say with these more organically in the play, or else provide all the characters with similar moments to balance things out.

Regardless this is wonderful play by a writer who will hopefully continue to contribute entertaining and intelligent works for us to enjoy.

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