What fun there is watching three splendid actors playing contentious theater professionals in this raucous, absurdist, and also insightful comedy about “the profession” by Theresa Rebeck. An Off Broadway hit five years ago, “The Understudy” takes a mostly comical look at a day’s rehearsal of a hit Broadway play that involves one of its stars, his understudy, and the stage manager. The play they are rehearsing is by Franz Kafka, a lengthy fusion of those mostly enigmatic psychological, political, and social elements that run through the renowned Czech author’s “The Castle” and “The Trial.” The rehearsal is for the benefit of the newly hired understudy.
Recently discovered and never before produced, the supposed masterpiece that is being rehearsed would never have seen the bright lights of Broadway were it not for two super stars of filmdom that see it as a lark between films and a vehicle to boost their prestige. While there are Kafkaesque traces of isolation, despair, and the inexplicable behavior by the characters in Rebeck’s play, they don’t keep us from simply enjoying the tumult and the terrain.
The rehearsed play’s star, a good-looking, young action-movie hero anxious to be taken seriously as an actor, is unwittingly challenged by his envious and eager understudy as things go from bad to worse, despite the best efforts of an unnerved stage manager. Having had the pleasure of seeing this play before, I am especially pleased at how director Adam Immerwahr has found a way to give the complicated relationships between the three a dimension that I previously did not see, or perhaps was not there before. He has also cleverly staged it with consideration for the Matthews Theater, the larger of the two theaters in the McCarter Theater Center.
All the action takes place on the stage and in the aisles of a Broadway theater, where the two action heroes are packing them in. One of the stars (never seen) gets $22 million a film while the slightly lesser one, Jake, only gets $2 million or so. However Jake, played with a disarming blend of self-effacement and swagger by the good-looking JD Taylor, is thrilled that his latest epic took in $67 million in its first weekend. And Jake is already prepared to take over for his co-star should it be necessary, with Harry (Adam Green) being prepped as his own understudy — however, we see, he has virtually no chance to ever go on.
Full of fun and fury, “The Understudy” gets off to a delightful starts with a self-serving “I’m not bitter” rant given directly to the audience by Harry. It’s funny enough as written, but we also, through Green’s spirited performance, get glimmers of the contentiousness that reflect Harry’s insecurities, including not getting enough work as an actor. But it isn’t insecurity that unsteadies Harry but rather the sight of Roxanne, to whom he had been engaged to be married six years ago. Why Harry took a powder two weeks before their wedding is for some mysterious reason not for us to know.
The sudden reappearance of Harry in Roxanne’s life adds to the tension and contention growing between Harry and Jake. Danielle Skraastad gives a humorously ferocious performance as Roxanne, who is still digesting the pain of her breakup with Harry. Her tendency to overreact to every challenge that comes up may also have something thing to do with her giving up acting and becoming a stage manager.
The current situation in which she has to act as a mediator/referee between the actors turns out to be more difficult and frustrating than she could have imagined. To make matters worse, there is an unseen assistant named Laura in a booth in the back of the theater who is apparently stoned and incapable of keeping control of the scenery, lighting, and special effects that are also being tested. A lot of the comedy is provided by the spectacular use and misuse of scenery, set pieces, including a huge sketch of Kafka, on movable platforms that take on a life of their own.
What is most revelatory and enjoyable is observing the way Green and Taylor analyze Kafka’s intentions and then perform scenes from the play. Playing splendidly off of each other, their intentions are always serious even if the effects are quite comical. It is their different approaches to the Kafka play that provide surprises for us. Putting aside his bravado, Jake’s endearing effort to understand his character is revelatory. His earnest attempt to be more than his film image is quite touching. This is particularly true when he is unexpectedly confronted with a rejection from Hollywood during the rehearsal.
Jake’s determination and his belief that he has something more to offer than he has been allowed is seen in contrast to Harry’s condescending attitude and his brash reliance on his training as a classically trained actor. It is here where Rebeck plays with a Kafkaesque conceit of deploying an unexpected and unpredictable outcome.
Both Green, who played Figaro in the play versions of “The Barber of Seville” and “The Marriage of Figaro” at McCarter last season, and Taylor, who is making his McCarter debut, are superb and have been perfectly cast as contrasting and also complimentary characters. One has to assume that the shrillness that pervades through much of Skraastad’s otherwise persuasive performance is obligatory. I remember that Julie White, who played Roxanne in New York, also pitched her loud and shrill voice to reach to the back of the theater.
Rebeck has become a prominent and prolific voice in the theater with such notable Broadway plays as “Mauritiu,” “Seminar,” and “Dead Accounts,” as well as many produced Off Broadway including her most recent “Poor Behavior.” “The Understudy” is one of her best, and its excellent production at McCarter confirms that.
The Understudy, McCarter Theater Center, 91 University Place, Princeton. Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 and 7:30 p.m., through Sunday, November 2. $25 to $92.50. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.