Monday, December 28, 2009

New York, Winter 2009 - Day Ten, "The Understudy"

I suppose one could do a festival of plays that take place entirely in theaters – “Noises Off, “Follies,” “Curtains,” “A Chorus Line,” “Phantom of the Opera” – I could continue. In fact, of the ten shows I saw on this trip, two (“Our Town” and “So Help Me God”) took place in theaters, and a third, “Circle Mirror Transformation” placed its action in a rehearsal studio which basically functioned as a theater.) Perhaps this plethora of titles is indicative of the navel-gazing often associated with theater types. Could it be that we are so self-absorbed and juvenile that we return again and again to the womb of the stage? Or is it just that we follow the adage to “write what you know?”

Whatever the reason, Theresa Rebeck has added another play to this canon of works -- "The Understudy," currently playing at the Laura Pels Theater as part of Roundabout Theatre Company's season.

The setup is pretty simple: Harry (a hilarious Justin Kirk) is a theater veteran, newly-hired to understudy a big movie star (Jake, played by Mark-Paul Gosselaar) in a surprise Broadway hit: a lost masterpiece of Franz Kafka's. Coming from two different worlds, there's bound to be some envy, especially when Jake claims that his $2.4 million fee for acting in a recent action blockbuster isn't really all that much after you pay your agent and manager. Harry's also a little judgmental about the quality of Jake's performance. So there's bound to be some tension on the set.

This tension should ordinarily be quelled by the sure and steady hand of a stage manager, the one person on a show whose job description (in part) is to never get flustered. But Roxanne (played delectably by Julie White, whose presence in the cast was probably the main reason I selected the show) is perpetually flustered -- by her late arriving movie star, by a prop gun that goes missing, by an unseen stoner tech who keeps hitting the wrong cues, but mostly by the fact that Harry was Roxanne's fiance until he skipped town two weeks before the wedding. (Roxanne doesn't know it's Harry who has been cast because he changed his name for professional reasons, so his presence on set is a big surprise for her.) Roxanne refers to her wedding dress, still in her closet six years later, as "a wound on a hanger."

"The Understudy" has its problems, but since we're in the theater, I'm willing to suspend a bit of disbelief and just go ahead and enjoy the snarky comments and all the funny insider bits that would fly right past most people but that a savvy New York audience just eats up.

As insider-y as "The Understudy" gets -- and it's pretty darn insider-y when you're cracking wise about the perceived value of Equity cards vs. SAG cards and the mercury poisoning a real Hollywood actor used as an excuse to get out of an off-Broadway production he wasn't enjoying -- it still meets the criteria of being universal enough. "The Understudy" is about power and clout and insecurity and confidence and professionalism. You just have to look past the jargon and the private jokes and enjoy the foolishness of people pretending to be other people (pretending to be still other people) and laugh because it makes you feel good.

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