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Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014

Having Fun with Theater

Renaissance Theaterworks sends up Broadway with 'The Understudy'

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The theater world loves nothing better than to poke fun at itself. Playwright Theresa Rebeck obligingly accommodates with current production, The Understudy.

Smartly directed by Mallory Metoxen, the three-character play begins with a long monologue by Harry, an accomplished (if unknown) actor who is cast as the understudy in a Broadway play. Harry has a sizable chip on his shoulder about his mixed achievements as an actor; during his monologue he unconvincingly claims that he’s “not bitter.” His dialogue doesn’t support this, nor does the arrival of the leading actor, Jake.

Jake is a minor movie star, whose latest action flick has grossed millions in its opening weekend. He has been cast in a “serious” role on Broadway (a previously undiscovered play by Franz Kafka) in order to gain some credibility. The producers have cast Jake and another, even higher profile actor in order to reduce their financial risk. Rebeck’s biting indictment of casting “celebrities” to lure theater audiences is often hilarious.

The two men are in the theater to rehearse some scenes in case Harry is ever needed to step in for Jake (after all, that’s the point of having an understudy). Jake bluntly tells Harry that the likelihood of his ever getting a chance to be onstage is next to nil. Besides, Jake adds, if he ever missed a performance, the entire audience would be rushing to the box office for refunds. “They are coming to see me,” Jake notes.

The repartee between Harry (played with scruffy charm by Ken T. Williams) and the muscular Jake (Phillip Sletteland) goes up a notch with the arrival of Roxanne (Cassandra Bissell). This usually confident and reliable stage manager nearly has a meltdown when she sees Harry. The two of them have some unresolved romantic history, and Roxanne can barely contain her dismay at seeing him. Roxanne is quick to put Harry in his place by saying that, in the hierarchy of theater, the understudy ranks as the “seventh spear carrier.”

The laughs flow smoothly in between bits of dialogue from Kafka’s horrid play. Roxanne has enough on her hands with Jake and Harry, but she also must cope with an unseen lighting operator who is stoned to the point that she botches almost every request for lights, sound and sets. Nathan Stuber’s brilliant set starts with a bare stage that magically produces tables, a bar and several backgrounds, all at the touch of a button.

There’s much more to be enjoyed in this clever, 90-minute play. Theatergoers who know what hurdles actors must face in this unforgiving industry are going to adore this witty, offbeat comedy.

The Understudy runs in the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre (158 N. Broadway) through Feb. 9.

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