Theresa Rebeck's new comedy, THE UNDERSTUDY, is one of those plays that is delightful but gets richer as one thinks about it. The basic premise is a simple one that allows Rebeck to offer a satire on the current state of the commercial theater. We see what is uspposed to be an understudy rehearsal for a newly discovered three-hour play by Franz Kafka (Wait! It will make sense). The lead in this Kafka opus is played by Bruce, a $22 million a film star who wants to have a shot on Broadway. Bruce is like God, an unseen power who ultimately controls the fate of the production. He can't act, but audiences are flocking to this play because he is in it. His co-star is Jake (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), another film actor but lower in the pecking order -- he only earns a tenth of what Bruce does for shouting lines like "Get in the Truck" in disaster movies. Jake also understudies Bruce's role in case Bruce disappears to get a film gig. Harry (Justin Kirk) has been brought in to cover Jake's part should Jake have to move into Bruce's. Got it? In charge of this two person undersudy rehearsal is the stage manager Roxanne (Julie White). Poor Roxanne has not been warned that the new understudy is the guy who left her without a word two weeks before their wedding and Harry's reappearance throws her into emotional turmoil. Harry is also uppity about Broadway being polluted by untalented movie actors rather than relying on experienced stage actors like himself. But, as Jake and Roxanne remind him, he is at the bottom of the theatrical pecking order.
OK, why Kafka? In this understudy rehearsal, no one seems to be in control. The stage manager is at the mercy of an unseen but stoned technician who keeps moving in the wrong scenery and bringing up the wrong cues. Everyone's emotional life seems out of control. Props disappear. And everyone's fate seems controlled by the unseen Bruce. The Kafka scenes are very funny and the satire of the current state of theater is on target.
THE UNDERSTUDY depends on brilliant comic performers and, under Scott Ellis's direction, gets them. Julie White, as usual, is wonderful as the neurotic Roxanne trying to hold on to her emotions while dealing with her feckless ex-lover and the unreliable technician. Justin Kirk give Harry the right combination of arrogance and fecklessness. Both White and Kirk are great physical actors whose every emotion somehow is reflected in posture and movement. Television actor Mark-Paul Gosselaar has never appeared on the professional stage before (he has starred in tv shows written by Rebeck) but is fine as Jake who, above all, wants to be taken seriously. Jake discovers that, despite his multi-million dollar salary, he is no more in control of his fate that Roxanne and Harry are.
Great fun. And in a commercial theater where an Australian and British movie star are filling a Broadway theater playing Chicago policemen in a play that would never get to Broadway without such a gimmick, the play is timely.
THE UNDERSTUDY by Theresa Rebeck, directed by Scott Ellis. Roundabout at Laure Pels Theatre, New York. November 21, 2009.