The Understudy, Theresa Rebeck’s love letter-slash-poison pen missive to Broadway, Hollywood, and the craft/vocation/affliction of acting, makes for a terrifically acted Southern California Premiere showcase for a trio of L.A. up-and-comers.
Max Bunzel plays action movie hero Jake, whose most recent flick has elevated him overnight to $2.3 million-per-pic movie stardom, big bucks to starving actor Harry (Braxton Molinaro), just hired to understudy Jake in the Broadway hit in which the latter shares the stage with action movie superstar Bruce, whose $22 mil “quote” makes Jake’s seem paltry by comparison.
If it seems a tad Kafkaesque that the show’s producers are only now getting round to covering Jake (who as Bruce’s understudy would himself need an understudy should Bruce ever miss a show), that might just be Rebeck’s intention since the play in question turns out to be an only recently discovered Franz Kafka masterpiece.
Adding complications to the confusion is Harry’s checkered past with harried stage manager Roxanne (Magdalene Vick), with whom he broke up a mere two weeks before their wedding day and without so much as a goodbye.
In any case, Harry has shown up at the theater for today’s pick-up rehearsal with a mix of excitement (it matters not that he’s “only” an understudy, since Broadway is Broadway and a paycheck is a paycheck) and contempt (he’s seen Jake’s top-grossing movie and honestly, how much talent does it take to say lines like “Get in the truck!”).
Jake is likewise no happier about having to rehearse with an understudy who will probably never get the chance to perform, and wouldn’t theatergoers ask for their money back were schlumpy Harry ever to attempt to fit into hunky Jake’s costumes and role?
Over the course of ninety real-time minutes, Rebeck’s mark-hitting, laugh-getting script reveals unexpected depths in its trio of archetypical characters, providing glimpses into the pain beneath Jake’s sarcasm and the vulnerability beneath Roxanne’s hard edges, and if you think the plight of a $2.3 million-per-pic movie star could never bring tears to your eyes, think again.
Not that The Understudy is anything close to a tear-jerker. Rebeck milks the comedic possibilities behind the handling of a prop gun, the taking of a drink, and the administering of a slap so cleverly that it hardly matters that the “Kafka” play-within-a-play comes across a tad more spoof than homage.
Laura Henry directs The Understudy’s three charismatic leads with just the right edge, and she is rewarded with performances that keep getting better the deeper her actors get into their roles.
Molinaro makes for a thoroughly winning loser, keeping us rooting for sad-sack Harry, who’s clearly got talent if not movie-star cheekbones and abs, speaking of which Bunzel’s Bradley Cooper-meets-Ryan Gosling’s star quality makes him an ideal choice for Jake (and he’s got acting chops to match). As for Vick, the raspy-voiced redhead is such a nonstop dynamo that when Roxanne reveals a broken heart, you may find yours breaking too.
Scenic designers Ryan Wineinger and Sam Ogden’s German expressionism-inspired set may not be what you’d get on a Broadway stage, but it is appropriately Kafkaesque (and nicely complemented by Nathan Connelly’s projection design).
Kelley Finn’s lighting design is effective as well, though I’m not sure that even the play’s unseen stoner of a light booth operator would be quite so unhinged as her frequent button-pushing comes across here.
Whitney Oppenheimer’s costumes suit each character quite neatly, while sound designer Jonathan Sokolow provides requisite gunshots and lightning when needed. (The Understudy features Chesley Walsh’s original song “Spin.”)
The Understudy is A Working Stage Collaboration Production created by Artists For Artists. Ashley Clark is stage manager and Jake O’Connor is board op.
Since making her first big splash off-Broadway in 1990 with Spike Heels, Theresa Rebeck has gone on to TV showrunner fame while continuing to impress theatergoers with her playwriting gifts. Razor-sharp in its focus on both stage and screen, The Understudy makes for a particularly tangy treat.
Working Stage Theater, 1516 N. Gardner Street, Hollywood.
March 19, 2106
Photos: Bryan Dechart