The Understudy

by Theresa Rebeck
directed by David Kennedy
December 29, 2010January 30, 2011

"...life is actually a bit like Kafka would have us believe it is."

An interview with director David Kennedy

David Kennedy is the director of the Wilma’s upcoming production of The Understudy by Theresa Rebeck. This interview was conducted by Richard Kotulski, the Wilma’s Literary Programming Assistant and Casting Director.

RK: What draws you to The Understudy?

DK: I identify with the underlying anxiety that fuels the characters, and I enjoy the way it’s expressed in this very smart and funny writing. What’s great about The Understudy is that Theresa employs the imaginative universe of Franz Kafka as shorthand for all the ways in which we’re frustrated in the attainment of our desires by impersonal forces that, nevertheless, have a very personal effect on us. Kafka’s novels and short stories are actually comedies of a sort, but comedy infused with dread, a kind of tragic farce, as is The Understudy. To my mind that’s the best kind of comedy.

In the play we have three people, all of whom could be said to be successful just by virtue of the fact that they get to work on Broadway, and yet their status is relative, and in comparison to the others in their lives or their profession, we see how little power each of them actually has. There is great comic potential in that. And it’s so well written. It’s very satirical and smart, but also humane.

RK: Can you talk a little bit more about the Kafka references and the Kafka elements in the play?

DK: Kafka’s work has long been misunderstood. Because of the initial English-language translations, I think people here came to see his work as much more dour than it actually is, whereas his novels and stories actually have so much life to them, so much wit. There’s this buoyancy and this wonderful sense of strangeness, and a sense of comedy. I often laugh when I read him. I think his work is far more personal than social in its observations. I don’t think Kafka was writing political parables, certainly not in the same vein as Aldous Huxley or George Orwell. If you look at his heirs today it would be artists like David Lynch, another purveyor of macabre, malevolent dreamscapes.

What Theresa does beautifully in the play is give us that twisted, comic Kafka, by understanding that comedy can be terrifying at its core. The primary nature of the theater is the persistent tension between reality and illusion, the ever-present sense that things are not always what they appear, which is so true of the world of Kafka. So, while the play does not necessarily exactly parallel any specific Kafka story, it does use Kafka as its inspiration.

Of course, the characters are supposed to be rehearsing an undiscovered masterpiece of Kafka’s, so that allows Theresa to put Kafka front and center, letting the audience know that this is the imaginative world we’re going to inhabit for the next hour-and-a-half. These characters rehearse a Kafka play, and so their lives starts to seem like a Kafka play, only instead of the shady authority figures you find in a Kafka story, the characters are afflicted by malevolent producers, stars and agents.

RK: Speaking of malevolent people, can you talk a little bit about the use of stars in theater?

DK: In The Understudy the offstage character Bruce is the real movie star, and Jake is a movie star only in comparison to Harry, who’s like every anonymous working actor. In the world of Hollywood Jake is actually a peon struggling to be taken seriously, to upgrade from successful B-movie action flicks to the more serious dramatic roles that he covets. Within the closed universe of The Understudy, Jake seems to be the top of the heap, but you soon learn his relative place in the scheme of things. He’s a marginal figure, which spiritually links him to Kafka’s protagonists, who are often people who seem to be of some higher social station, who may be arrogant about those beneath them on the social ladder, but who are eventually shown to be of no significance in the greater scheme of things. In Kafka’s world the seat of ultimate authority is never genuinely determined, and no matter how impressive an authority figure looks at first—a cop or a magistrate or an official—he’s eventually revealed to be a mere flunky of some larger hierarchical system that is beyond imagining. So just to get ahead, Jake has to please all these people who affect his destiny in the most contingent and arbitrary ways.

RK: The set poses interesting challenges for a designer. Tell us a little about Andrew Boyce, who’s designing the set for you.

DK: In this play you’ve got to contend with several levels of reality. There’s the reality that you’re in the Wilma Theater’s specific space. Then there’s the reality of the Broadway theater in which the rehearsal is supposed to be taking place, which is an entirely different feeling, an entirely different architecture than the Wilma’s space. Then you have to deal with the level of reality of the production of this unnamed Kafka play, the play within the play.

I decided to work with Andrew because he’s able to approach a play conceptually, and so I knew he’d be able to successfully balance these three environments, nestled one inside the other like a Chinese box. As far as the play within the play goes, that’s something we had a great deal of discussion about because there’s a variety of ways we could have interpreted it. We had to ask ourselves the questions: “If this Kafka play were actually playing on Broadway, then what kind of production would it receive? Who would design it? What are the production values? What is the overall feeling of it?” We chose to take the play within the play quite seriously. I feel strongly that it should be a good production, a really beautifully designed production. That gave us a lot of possibility for dynamic contrast in the realization of the design. When the play begins, it’s the beginning of a rehearsal day, and so we begin with an empty stage bathed in work light. Nothing looks particularly romantic. None of the magic of the theater is present. Then when the play within the play begins, and the various set pieces come on, and we snap into the proper light cue, it will be like the moment when a kaleidoscope turns and suddenly you see this beautiful image. Of course, you know that the image will fracture and fragment later on, and you’ll be back in the plain old theater. That’s the actual magic of the theater, that possibility for transformation.

RK: What would you sort of hope for audiences to take away from The Understudy?

DK: I’m not big on messages. Obviously with comedies you live and die on whether it’s funny, and that’s why it’s so scary to direct comedies and to act in comedies, much more so than dramas. In a drama, you can fool people into thinking they’re having a serious or profound time at the theater, even if they’re not. Whereas the feedback from an audience watching a comedy is immediate. It’s either funny or it isn’t. On that level, I really hope that the audience has as good a time watching it as we have had working on it. But then I think beneath that, going back to our first exchange, comedy has to be informed by kind of a truth, the real need, the real circumstances, the real anxieties and real dread, the real psychic turmoil that these characters experience.

What truth you might ask? I suppose it’s recognition that life is actually a bit like Kafka would have us believe it is. If the audience walks out of the theater with an appreciation for just how deeply strange the world is, then that would be wonderful. It’s like a quote from the surrealist poet Paul Eluard that a playwright I know turned me onto: “There is another world and it is this one.”

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