The Understudy

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

Theater no trivial pursuit to 'The Understudy' playwright Theresa Rebeck

'If you're going to write plays," says playwright Theresa Rebeck from the Brooklyn home she shares with her husband and two children, "if you know that's your vocation, you don't want to be trivial."

Rebeck has written novels, film scripts, and TV pilots as well as a string of successful dramas, among them Mauritius (2007) and Omnium Gatherum, cowritten with Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros, for which she was a 2003 Pulitzer finalist. She's funny, often satirical, often wacky - but one thing she can't be accused of is triviality.

Two major Rebeck works are coming to the Philadelphia area, starting with her most recent play, The Understudy, now in previews and opening at the Wilma Theater on Wednesday. Another is under way at the University of Delaware, where Rebeck, in residence there, is writing an ambitious work titled O Beautiful. The university's Resident Ensemble Players will debut it April 22.

"It's really exciting to finally have a full production in Philadelphia," Rebeck says. In 1989 she was part of the Mentor Project, administered by the Philadelphia Theatre Company, and she workshopped her play Spiked Heels there, under the auspices of Arthur Kopit. "I had a wonderful time in Philadelphia," Rebeck says, "and I have fond memories of it. Many times I have looked around and said, 'What a livable city this is.' "

In both The Understudy and O Beautiful, she says, she has tried to strike a balance among three needs - to entertain; to tell the truth about our lives; and to let that spiritual thing called drama happen.

The Understudy concerns Harry (played by Cody Nickell), the title character, newly hired to backstop the lead in a Kafka play on Broadway. (Yes, we have no Kafka plays, but in The Understudy, a long-lost theatrical version of The Castle has been discovered.) Harry is understudy to Jake (Brad Coolidge), a Hollywood action-hero hunk, who lets Harry know at every turn who's the big dog and who's the mutt (and Harry is, no mistake, bitter about it). A third figure, just as compelling, looms behind and between them: the overburdened stage manager, Roxanne (Jenn Harris), once engaged to Harry, who fled.

Two men and a woman collide - and so do at least three kinds of writing: Broadway drama, Hollywood script, and Kafka, whom we hear in snippets as the rehearsal proceeds.

"You could say it's about theater," Rebeck says. "And it is - how a play gets put on and what's behind it. But it's also about more."

As an undergrad, Rebeck felt drawn to Kafka. "He was articulating something beyond his time and place, like many great writers," she says. And as she began her career in show business, she realized what it was.

"A lot of what happens in show business is just horrible," she says, drawing on her experiences in film, TV, and theater, "and with next to no reason for it. Your life is out of your control. Constantly, you're wondering, 'Why did they pull the plug on that production? Why did they do that to me? What are people behaving like this for?'

"And after a while I came to see that the capitalist cruelty growing out of the drive for profit was behind it," she says. "It's a kind of senseless, dehumanizing, totalitarian force. The New York theater world is very often just as weird as the world of TV and film."

Harry's career is a hilarious and frustrating battle against the forces that place theatrical fulfillment beyond his grasp. What better metaphor for us all than the understudy? And what better literary avatar than Kafka's The Castle, in which, as she says, "mad things are happening, but it's not clear who's causing them, or why"? (Kafka considered The Castle a humorous work - which, despite its hulking, existentialist rep, it assuredly is.)

Rebeck has devised her own solution to the existentialist predicament of being in theater: "Write new American plays that say something about the culture and are fun to watch."

That seems to be the plan for O Beautiful. "It's a gas," she says of the University of Delaware. "I'm in love with Delaware. It's a fantastic place, I like the students, and I feel a lot of real intellectual curiosity.

"O Beautiful ]is about the collapse of the American character," Rebeck says. Sanford Robbins, director of the Professional Theatre Training Program at Delaware, commissioned a work for the entire 19-member Resident Ensemble.

Rebeck is developing a piece that now has 30 roles for those 19 actors, addressing the tattered fabric of American culture. One thread involves bullying and its impact on a high school community. In another, a young woman struggles with abortion, "the story," Rebeck says, "no one wants to tell." There's even a TV commentator interviewing the Founding Fathers.

O Beautiful takes on our emergent culture of anger - a culture in which most people don't know quite what they're angry about. "Yet this is the culture we are leaving to our children," Rebeck says. "I feel the noise of the culture is invading our lives and causing tragedy where there is none."

She says she immensely enjoys bringing her successive drafts to reading sessions at Delaware: "It's a playwright's dream to walk into a room and see a table of 19 people, ready to read your play."

But Rebeck says she values something beyond that.

"What happens in the theater happens in the spaces between people," she says. "It's a spiritual thing. There's me, there's you, but there's what's between us, a something else. When people gather in one space to share a living work of art, that's the wonderful thing that happens. It's necessary and life-affirming. You don't want to take that lightly."