Written by Patrick Chavis
Plays are a great medium for focusing on one subject. You’ve got a stage, actors, a few props and –potentially–maybe only a few scene changes. For the most part plays are very good at stripping away the excess of the exterior and uncovering the inter-workings of the people and ideas right in front of you. Theresa Rebeck’s play The Understudy (running now at The Modjeska Playhouse) is one of those plays. However it tries to walk a tight rope between comedy and drama, with jokes that fail to bring laughs and dramatic moments which lack weight.
The Understudy takes place during a rehearsal between two understudies named Harry and Jake. Principal understudy Jake (Robert Downs) is a successful actor backed by a lengthy resume full of action films. On much more unstable ground is the newest performer Harry (Jaycob Hunter), who is an opinionated journeyman actor. Harry’s talented but hasn’t quite made it yet –and he’s just been cast to understudy in a Kafka play. Roxanne the stage manager is overseeing the rehearsal with the alleged assistance of Laura –the offstage light operator who doesn’t give a hoot about anything and constantly screws up the lighting directions. Throughout the rehearsal we learn about each character, their previous connections with each other and some of the many struggles of being actor.
To understand what’s going on in this play, you should understand Kafka, or at least understand what he was about. Franz Kafka was a literary giant from the 1800s who lived a very short life. Kafka was known for writing surreal and deeply affecting stories about human society and the absurd things people do. His work influenced many such as Albert Camus –the French writer and philosopher who pioneered absurdism. In this context absurdism is the idea that humans are constantly looking for meaning in life while the world around them is indifferent. It doesn’t matter if you want to be a doctor or an artist, if your favorite color is pink or green–the universe will continue on with or without you. The Understudy is like the diet Pepsi of absurdism. It lets you briefly taste absurdism but doesn’t give you the sugary rush you are looking for. The play tries to do a balancing act between a very grounded story and these absurdist ideas, but they don’t connect. The Laura character –who is the unseen, uncaring God character of this story –is supposed to be funny but comes off as annoying. The drama occasionally works between the three main characters, but even their interactions feel forced in certain circumstances. Story wise the play does communicate one of the basic solutions absurdism proposes, which is even though the acting industry –aka life –is inevitably a struggle, we can find some happiness in the process.
The show’s set is really disconnected from the source material. The show is about rehearsing for a Kafka show on Broadway but the set is a basic castle with a few banners. There’s nothing Kafka about it from my perspective. I would have appreciated if more work and thought had been put into the stage design.
Jake –played by Robert Downs –is my undoubted favorite. Downs plays the role of Jake with ease. Initially he is a character that we are supposed to believe has no problems. Yet as the play goes on, Jake reveals more about himself, and the audience discovers even someone like Jake isn’t as a happy as you would think. Downs is able translate these feelings to the audience without being overly dramatic, which would have been off putting for the type of person he’s portraying.
This play is a comedic satire with deeply dramatic plot lines and an ambiguous Kafka-esque message that also critiques the film and theatre industry. While I don’t believe the Modjeska Playhouse put on a fully realized production this show, the play would be a well written mess for even the largest of theatres.
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