nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
November 11, 2009
Theresa Rebeck is one of New York's most oft-produced playwrights. She writes very well for actors, giving them juicy monologues, strong scenes, and a lot of opportunity for back story. But as wholes, her plays aren't as strong as the sum of their parts. The Understudy is a prime example of this: juicy everything, but very flimsy.
That doesn't mean that the production at the Laura Pels Theatre, under the direction of Scott Ellis, isn't delightful. As acted by the impeccable cast of Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Justin Kirk, and Julie White, The Understudy is one of the more enjoyable comedies I've seen in a while, warts and all.
It's a play that's largely about appearances. The title character is Harry (Kirk), an understudy for Jake (Gosselaar), an action movie star starring in a newly discovered Kafka play on Broadway. But Jake, too, is an understudy, understudying the real "draw" of the production, Bruce (only talked about). Compared to Bruce, Jake is a nothing. Compared to Jake, Harry is a nothing. But the two men share the same struggle, one in the world of theater, one in the world of film. Trying to keep everything together is Roxanne (White), the frazzled stage manager who was engaged to Harry until he fled. The occasion for which they have all come together is the understudy rehearsal.
There are lots of laughs to be had in Rebeck's script, especially if you enjoy theater in-jokes like the one-off mention of the infamous disease Mercury Poisoning. Funnier than the play itself is the Kafka script (penned by Rebeck). A bit too easy are the ways she gets characters conveniently off stage, either to go to the bathroom, take a telephone call or, in the case of Roxanne, to go look for the stoner technical director.
Were the cast not as strong as it is, this frenetic 100-minute farce would be little more than a whole lot of screaming. The weakest link (and I use that term very lightly) is White, whose characterization is so broad that it occasionally goes too far overboard. This worked in a play like The Little Dog Laughed but here it's just distracting, especially compared to Kirk and Gosselaar, who are just as broad, but have some semblance of naturalism. Kirk, twitchy and high-strung, gives hilarious new meaning to the phrase "Get in the Truck."
It's Gosselaar who is the most impressive. The Playbill announces that it's his New York stage debut, but in interviews he's stated that it's his stage (proper) debut. Perhaps I'm biased because I grew up on Saved by the Bell, but he manages to be the most human of the three. You feel the worst for him when the ending, which Rebeck has slightly foreshadowed throughout the play, occurs.
I left the theater thinking one thing: "I wonder if this is what Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman are like?"