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The Rousuck Review: "The Understudy"

Stan Barouh

A review of a play about a play. J. Wynn Rousuck on the backstage comedy, "The Understudy" now at Everyman Theatreuntil September 28.

The Rousuck Review: "The Understudy"

Everyman Theatre has launched the Baltimore theater season with a bang – a gunshot actually. That’s the first sound the audience hears in Theresa Rebeck’s comedy, “The Understudy.”

Seconds later actor Clinton Brandhagen comes tearing out, brandishing the gun at the audience. “It’s not real,” he reassures us; it’s a prop gun. And he’s an actor playing – an actor. More specifically, he’s playing an understudy. He’s just been hired and just arrived at the theater to rehearse.

Theresa Rebeck created the recent NBC TV series, “Smash,” which was also a behind-the-scenes look at show business. “Smash” chronicled the making of a fictitious Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe. “The Understudy’s” focus is more highbrow – a fictitious Broadway play, an “undiscovered masterpiece” by Franz Kafka.

The cast of this masterpiece consists of a pair of Hollywood movie stars, whose careers are based on big budget action pictures.
It would be an understatement to say that the understudy doesn’t have much respect for either of these above-the-title celebrities. His bitterness is exacerbated by the fact that he auditioned for their latest movie. 

So, there’s friction even before Brandhagen’s resentful character meets the actor he’s understudying. And, in a subplot reminiscent of an episode from Kafka’s own life, there’s also a thwarted love story involving the understudy and the stage manager conducting this rehearsal – played by an appropriately huffy Beth Hylton.

The rehearsal shows us snippets from Kafka’s play, whose title we never learn. Many of the laughs come from the ineptitude of an unseen tech who keeps mixing up lighting cues, playing the wrong music and sending in the wrong scenery.

The scenery itself is comic. Daniel Ettinger has designed wildly expressionistic sets, complete with forced perspective for the scenes from Kafka’s play, all within a beautifully detailed Broadway-style proscenium arch. 
The play-within-the-play is rife with references to Kafka’s best-known works, especially his novels, “The Trial” and “The Castle.” (Kafka didn’t write any plays -- at least none that are known.) 

But the real fun is the way Rebeck’s plots and themes reflect Kafka’s: Lack of control, bureaucracy, existential crises, anonymity, the imbalance of power. After all, what is an understudy if not a powerless, anonymous cog in a show biz wheel? And, as he’s reminded by the star he’s understudying – knowingly played by Danny Gavigan – the understudy is a cog no one will ever see.

Director Joseph W. Ritsch makes dexterous use of the full theater, with cast members dashing up and down the aisles as if they were in a big Broadway barn. And he lets respect build slowly and convincingly between understudy and star.

Ironically, like many regional theaters its size and even larger, Everyman doesn’t have a big enough budget to hire understudies. It does, of course, have an immense love for playmaking, and that love comes beaming across the footlights.

“The Understudy” is no sugary valentine to show business – Theresa Rebeck’s viewpoint is far too caustic. But as Everyman’s polished production proves, this is satire stemming from affection. What could be a happier way to usher in a new theater season than a play about the theater? 

-J. Wynn Rousuck

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years.
Jamyla Krempel is WYPR's digital content director and the executive producer of Wavelength: Baltimore's Public Radio Journey. She collaborates with reporters, program and podcast hosts to create content for WYPR’s online platforms.