Review: The Understudy

Originally reviewed for

Is The Understudy a love letter or a poison pen letter to the theatre? Playwright Theresa Rebeck looks at one of the most infamous positions in the theatre: the understudy. The play, Rebeck’s best and funniest in years, certainly celebrates what the theatre is capable of, but it also has piercing insight into hard show biz truths.

It’s fitting that the “understudy rehearsal” which makes up the play is for a Broadway production of a newly discovered play by Franz Kafka. The Understudy reveals the ways in which show business is like one of Kafka’s nightmare bureaucracies — everybody is standing in for somebody else more powerful.

We may initially think that Harry (rubber-limbed Justin Kirk) is the titular understudy, but Jake (Mark-Paul Gosselaar, looking great in a tight t-shirt) the minor movie star whose role Harry’s “covering” is himself understudying the role of an even bigger movie star, the unseen Bruce. And Roxanne (Julie White, hilarious as always) may be a much-loved (in more ways than one) stage manager, but she also has acting ambitions herself. Rebeck even hints at the idea that commercial theatre as a whole is a much-abused “understudy” of the movie industry, aping its moves and jealously eyeing its bigger paychecks.

Beyond all this, however, we get to see glimpses of the dream that motivates all three characters. Harry has a great instinct for tone and physicality, Jake, real passion for the philosophical seriousness of Kafka, Roxanne, penetrating insight into the possibilities of cross-gender casting. When all three do the Kafka play’s finale, an absurd yet passionate dance, it’s a moving homage to what the theatre can do when humble artistry triumphs commerce-driven nerves.

For tickets, click here.

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