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.
It’s a really smart play — not anywhere near as biting or satiric as The Little Dog Laughed– but smart nevertheless. It’s really funny too. The use of offstage characters, like Laura, is well handled for comic effect. It also has a lot of heart, which I really like. I found a clip of Julie White talking about the play on YouTube. She emphasizes its “kindness,” which I think is a great word to describe it.
As should be expected, White is good in this role, as is Justin Kirk. What stood out to me and PJ is how great Gosselaar is in this play. He’s best known for his role as Zack Morris in Saved by the Bell. As an adult he also starred in NYPD Blue. As Jake, he’s got the best part in this play — he’s an action star who wants more; he knows what people think of his movies and their (lack of) dramatic worth and wants to change that by starring in more serious films. He wants to stretch himself as an actor, which is just what Gosselaar does in this role. He’s funny, interesting, and sexy as hell — since his character is an action star, he’s clearly been working out hard at the gym, as his tight t-shirt and jeans generously reveal. We can see why he’d be a minor movie star and why he’d want more as an actor.
I also found a clip of him talking about the play on YouTube:
I wish he had done it sooner too! I think he has a great stage career ahead of him if he wants it.
Finally, I also want to note the set design for this play. As an off-Broadway play, I expected it to invest more minimally in its sets, so I was pleasantly surprised by how intricate the sets were. They play a key role in the play’s comic effects, so they have to be good. I love a good set design, and this is one of the better ones I’ve seen in New York or London.
Overall, I really enjoyed The Understudy. It’s funny, complicated, satiric, thoughtful, and entertaining. I hope it has a long run — if I lived in NYC, I’d definitely want to see it again.