Friday, October 16, 2009

The Understudy

"The Understudy" presented by Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre, October 15, 2009

Theresa Rebeck's latest opus graces the off-Broadway stage of the Roundabout Theatre, a backstage comic three-hander. Jake (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) is a movie star on the rise, making his Broadway debut in a newly discovered work by Kafka appearing alongside the unseen Bruce, another movie star, but of a higher magnitude. Harry (Justin Kirk) has been hired to understudy Jake. Roxanne (Julie White) is the production stage manager charged with conducting Harry's first rehearsal with Jake.

I must give credit to Mr. Gosselaar for having the courage to make his NY stage debut in a role opposite Ms. White. His Jake, though written in two dimensions for the most part, captures that essence of an out-of-touch Hollywood actor now successful enough to think that CGI enhanced performances qualify as art. Mr. Gosselaar portrayal demonstrates this both intentionally, and unintentionally in his early scenes, seeming to warm up as the action progresses.

Mr. Kirk's Harry is more fully framed as a working and talented actor who can't seem to get that break. His baggage trails behind him with a long shadow, sharpened by the revelation of his previous relationship with Roxanne. Both are flabbergasted to meet the other after he jilted her six years before - disappeared without a word. His new stage name is unknown to Roxanne, though it's never really explained why he changed it.

But, as she carried the show in "Little Dog Laughed" Ms. White is in fine form again here. Having given up her own acting ambitions, her Roxanne has moved into stage managing to stay in the business she loves. We get a glimpse of the actor she was as she and Jake discuss the sexual politics of Kafka's writing and work through some of the play's interactions. He's mesmerized, but she's only demonstrating her training.

Director Scott Ellis handles his cast well, giving Ms. White and Mr. Kirk the leeway needed for them to expand on the profiles provided by Ms. Rebeck. He's given Mr. Gosselaar a good start as well, helping him to keep up with his cast mates and avoid getting steam-rolled by them.

Alexander Dodge's "Broadway" sets are ambitious for the Pels Theatre, but don't overpower the space. With a little tweaking to the script here and there, this piece could have some legs.

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