The Understudy

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

Sprightly satire 'The Understudy' arrives at the Wilma Theater

Sprightly satire 'The Understudy' arrives at the Wilma Theater By: Naila Francis The Intelligencer

The idea of a Franz Kafka play making it to Broadway may seem ludicrous, but it’s a clever trick that playwright Theresa Rebeck manages to pull off with “The Understudy.”

In the production making its Philadelphia premiere at the Wilma Theater, with previews beginning Wednesday, the Czech writer is not so much mined for parody as he is celebrated for his timeless themes of alienation and persecution.

In the backstage comedy, Harry (Cody Nickell), a bitter, down-on-his-luck actor, is hired to be the understudy for Jake (Brad Coolidge), a smug Hollywood action star who’s landed a coveted role in a newly discovered play by Kafka. Instantly rivals, the two inhabit a familiar Kafkaesque set of circumstances: Harry struggles futilely to get the attention he believes he deserves, while Jake, who also is enjoying blockbuster success with his latest film, nonetheless grapples with the dearth of substantive roles available to him.

The tensions at a Broadway theater where the two are rehearsing are further escalated by the presence of Roxanne (Jenn Harris), the stage manager who is overseeing the run-through and wrestling with her own frayed nerves since Harry happens to also be her ex-fiancé.

“It’s going to provoke people to think about life and how strange it is. Life is really strange. We’re always trying to normalize it but it’s very bizarre,” says director David Kennedy, who is not only making his Wilma Theater debut with “The Understudy” but introducing Philadelphia audiences to Rebeck’s work for the first time.

“It examines what it’s like to be in any situation where you feel powerless and feel that your choices are restricted and where you feel like the things that you’re subjected to on a daily basis border on the surreal. By looking at that slightly askance, (the play) becomes a meditation on what it means to try to exercise influence over your own destiny and how futile that can be.”

If that sounds like weighty subject matter for a comedy, Kennedy, who is the associate artistic director of the Westport Country Playhouse in Westport, Conn., points out that comedy is often based on a degree of cruelty — the classic case of the guy slipping on a banana peel, for instance — and that it was Rebeck’s “unique, off-kilter sense of humor” that drew him to the play.

“She’s got crack comic timing,” he says. “I was very attracted to the way (this play) takes a subject as complex as Franz Kafka and finds an accessible way to explore what he is about in this world of the theater. He wrote about one’s place in the universe and that innate sense we all seem to feel of not being good enough.

“(Rebeck) has a very deep affinity and feeling for his work. She’s taken a writer who’s in the consciousness of the public and is using that as a metaphor to talk about life today.”

While it definitely examines the more intimately personal, “The Understudy,” which premiered at the 2008 Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts before its off-Broadway run at the Laura Pels Theatre, also satirizes our celebrity-obsessed culture, using the Great White Way — where Hollywood stars, from Hugh Jackman and Denzel Washington to Catherine Zeta-Jones and Christina Ricci, have flocked in recent years — as its lens.

“The commentary about New York theater and Broadway in particular is that it has become a celebrity marketplace, with these actors who may be making their theatrical debut at the same time that they’re making their Broadway debut, and producers who need big Hollywood names to sell tickets,” says Nickell, a New York City-based actor who last appeared at the Wilma in 2005’s “Outrage.” “But it’s not a judgment on the business. It looks at the business without ultimately saying that anyone’s doing something wrong.”

That Rebeck can serve up such authentic satire without veering into biting critique speaks to her versatility. In addition to being one of the most-produced female playwrights in the U.S., she also has written extensively for television, sharing both writing and producing credits on shows such as “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” and “NYPD Blue.” She also recently partnered with Stephen Spielberg on a pilot for Showtime, and her produced feature films include “Harriet the Spy,” “Gossip” and “Seducing Charlie Baker,” an adaptation of her play “The Scene.”

“Because Theresa writes for film and TV, her characters are drawn very well, but she also pulls no punches,” says Nickell. “Harry is a bitter actor. Harry may be a snob. He’s not a perfect person by any means. Jake may seem like a dumb Hollywood star, but he turns out to have a very deep emotional and intellectual life. We are all faulted. … Theresa is very smart about how she crafts her characters. They’re these wonderfully human, normal people but are tweaked enough to be funny.”

Though he has learned to be grateful for any job that comes his way, Nickell can identify with his character and the frustrations and financial struggles that attend the constant hustle of his career.

“He’s not unlike me. He’s an actor who does a lot of plays and occasionally does film or television but certainly he has no level of fame to speak of,” he says. “He takes a job understudying this super-duper film star … but he feels superior to this guy as an actor and probably even as a human being and shows up with a pretty big chip on his shoulder and a pretty sarcastic streak that he just lets fly.

“Harry represents the Kafka protagonist who thinks he’s superior and in control, and the world comes crashing down around him. His power, his status are stripped away from him and no one seems to hear him or see him, but it’s not a dark and existentially angsty play. Ultimately, it talks about really human things like love and self-doubt and finding your place in the world.”

While the ending charms with a perhaps surprising dose of soulfulness, it also befits a writer who never finished any of his novels.

“The very nature of Kafka is that there are no easy resolutions,” says Kennedy. “(Rebeck) provides a sense of hope on the horizon, but she does it in a way that is ambiguous … wonderfully ambiguous.”

“The Understudy” begins in previews Wednesday, then opens Jan. 5 and runs through Jan. 30 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St., Philadelphia. Tickets: $36 to $65. Information and show times: 215-546-7824; www.wilmatheater.org.