While we were in NYC last week, PJ and I saw one off-Broadway play, The Understudy, which was written by Theresa Rebeck and stars Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Justin Kirk, and Julie White. We saw White a couple of years ago in her Tony winning performance in The Little Dog Laughed, which was a great, devastatingly satiric play on Hollywood, and so we looked forward to seeing her again in this work, which, at least on paper, sounds a little like The Little Dog Laughed.
Kirk, who is perhaps best known for his work in Weeds and Angels in America, plays Harry, who has just been hired as the understudy for an action movie star, Jake, played by Gosselaar. Jake and another action star, Bruce, are starring in a hit Broadway play that is a recently discovered work by Kafka. The play-within-a-play more or less combines elements from Kafka’s The Trial with elements from The Castle. There are sixteen roles in the Kafka play, but Bruce plays fifteen of them and Jake plays one. Harry is Jake’s understudy, and Jake is Bruce’s understudy. The real-time action of The Understudy involves a rehearsal of the play so that Harry can learn Jake’s part.
White plays the stage manager, Roxanne. She’s trying to keep everything together despite several setbacks. She used to be an actress but had to give up that career when she fell apart after a breakup. She also has a complicated relationship with each of the other characters. And finally, her tech person, Laura, is too stoned to be entirely cooperative during the rehearsal.
Basically, on one level this play is about these characters’ relationships with one another; on another level it’s an exploration of the current economic realities of Broadway, the need to attract large audiences and the use of big name movie stars to do so. The play explores some of the complications this use of movie stars on Broadway entails.