Saturday, November 7, 2009


The Understudy
Written by Theresa Rebeck
Directed by Scott Ellis

Starring Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Justin Kirk, Julie White

Performances from October 9-January 3, 2010
Laura Pels Theater

111 West 46th Street

Theresa Rebeck--who has written plays about the pernicious news media and shallow Hollywood big shots--now turns her attention to that special breed of actor who must have every line of his part down cold in the unlikely event he’s thrust onstage.

The Understudy is a farce about an actor, Harry, who arrives for his first rehearsal understudying a part a three-hour play based on Kafka that currently stars two big but untalented movie stars. One of them, Jake, is also understudying the lead; Harry understudies Jake’s part. The two men are joined by Roxanne, the show’s stage manager, a former actress who was Harry’s fiancĂ©e before he jilted her two weeks before their wedding six years ago. Needless to say, wounds still fester.

Throughout the play, Rebeck pokes fun at actors on and offstage. There’s a lot of carrying on about bad action stars in bad action movies, however financially successful, and a specific jokes about getting mercury poisoning, which is what caused Jeremy Piven to pull out of last season’s Speed-the-Plow. Rebeck also takes aim at theater audiences, whether it’s the movie stars currently taking over Broadway or the buses from New Jersey that bring suburbanites to see smash musicals. There are also a lot of theater in-jokes that, depending on what kind of audience is at the performance, either get huge laughs or crickets. Roxanne tries (mostly in vain) to get another unseen crew member to stop smoking weed long enough to do her job correctly.

It’s not necessarily bad that The Understudy is mainly an accumulation of hit-or-miss show biz jokes, but the resulting paper-thin comedy is happy to be merely engaging rather than authentically biting in its humor. And that’s not even mentioning the play’s absurdities like a play’s star also being an understudy.

Scott Ellis’ skillful direction smoothes over the rough patches when Rebeck’s invention flags, helped immeasurably by Kenneth Posner’s magisterial lighting and Alexander Dodge’s eye-popping set design, which doubles as the theater’s stage and several settings for the Kafka play being rehearsed.

White always mines the same fraughtly frazzled territory, but no one does it funnier than she, especially when wielding an iPhone like a weapon. If Mark-Paul Gosselaar is straight-jacketed by Jake, the play’s least convincing part, Justin Kirk uses his considerable comedic talents--primarily an expressively rubbery face and spectacularly versatile voice--to keep Rebeck’s one-liners cracking even when Harry has to repeat B-movie lines like “Get in the truck!“ to ever diminishing returns.
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