The Understudy

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

The Philadelphia Inquirer Reviews 'The Understudy'

Cruel world, showbiz. You get a bit-part audition in Hollywood, you can't even land it. Yet this other guy, a no-talent smooth face with a prep-school chin and endless hair, lands the line-screaming action-hero lead for $2 million-plus. And you're the "professional" actor.

So back to New York, and maybe it's not so bad after all - you land on Broadway. OK, as an understudy. But did it have to be as the understudy for the same overblown film-boy, now triumphing on the Big Stage for his movie-star rep? And did the stage manager have to be the woman you once loved, then left?

Did the play have to be a newly found theatrical adaptation by Franz Kafka of his grotesquely dark novel, The Castle? Things are out of hand.

And that's precisely why Theresa Rebeck's ragingly funny The Understudy hits the mark from its first surprising minute to the last scene, when it dives into an incongruous surrealism that Kafka himself might appreciate.

The Understudy, a hit last season Off-Broadway, where I missed seeing it, is funny enough. But director David Kennedy's Wilma Theater production, which opened Wednesday, boosts it with a perfect three-member cast. The actors exploit The Understudy's wrinkles with characterizations that seem natural even when they're over the top, and with a laser focus that burns into Rebeck's text.

That script would be yet another insular story about the theater, but Rebeck - a facile weaver of detail into almost melodic plot - offers a full-length play without intermission that hits on status, cowardice, jealousy, greed, and sucking up.

So much for the play's serious undercurrent. The value of The Understudy is the pleasure it provides by drawing big-time laughs from this pool of human frailty, not one of them a cheap thrill. The jokes here are organic, straight from the characters' frustrations and from a subtle, lasting tension in the play's setup. That underpinning is taut enough - at least in this staging - to let the characters sometimes laugh together or momentarily appreciate each other or bare their own wires, even amid their deep-down distrusts.

And so the production has a rich emotional feel - a victory for Kennedy, the director, and for the actors: Cody Nickell, who plays the understudy as if his life were a lemon, framed by sour grapes; Brad Coolidge, who nails every bit of the high-priced movie star's presence; and, most notably, Jenn Harris, the stage manager who tries to move the two guys through a rehearsal, exquisitely comic in her suffering.

A fourth character, Laura, is never seen. She's a pothead who runs the stagecraft, in a light and sound booth said to resemble the inside of a bong. She's effectively represented by lighting designer Sarah Sidman, sound designer Christopher Colucci, and set designer Andrew Boyce - she's the one supposedly maneuvering the fine work of them all.

The Wilma's is the first professional regular-season production of a Theresa Rebeck play in the region; her swell Broadway play, Mauritius, about stamp dealing and double dealing, was set for Philadelphia Theatre Company last season but preempted by a late-breaking world premiere. Its time will come again. For now, Rebeck's represented in unassailable style by The Understudy.