The makers of the backstage farce “The Understudy” had an easier time getting inside the cutthroat world of the New York theater than they do getting out of their movie, which delivers more acts than the 112th Congress and takes an increasingly downbeat exit strategy from its heroine’s accidentally homicidal Off Broadway career. Marin Ireland makes a winning lead, but the script by helmers David Conolly and Hannah Davis ran out of gas in 2008, which is when the film was made. Theatrical exposure will be brief.
The story gets off to a promising start. Rebecca Kinsman (Ireland), the actorly outcast in a family of lawyers, gets to shut them up when she’s hired as understudy to movie star Simone Harwin (Kelli Giddish), cast as the lead in Sophocles “Electra.”
Rebecca, who lives platonically with wannabe playwright Sarfras (Aasif Mandvi) and spends her off hours taking a blind woman to the movies, is a sweetly melancholic, downtrodden soul, which the cunning Simone uses to her advantage: She befriends Rebecca, bases her performance on her and doesn’t show up for any previews, during which Rebecca Electra-fies the theater world (“I haven’t felt like this since I played Mother Courage for Carnival Cruises,” she says, in one of Conolly and Davis’ better lines). And then Simone returns on opening night to steal back her thunder.
It’s by accident that Rebecca pushes Simone out of the balcony, which Simone miraculously survives in a coma, initiating a slo-mo nervous breakdown for our heroine, who manages — by pure chance — to knock off whoever else stands in her way.
Conolly and Davis paint an acidic portrait of the theater world: Rebecca’s director (the ever-reliable Richard Kind) is an opportunist who can barely remember Rebecca’s name; her stage manager, Alison (the terrific Marcia DeBonis) is a harpy; all her co-stars are feckless. But all evildoers pale next to Greta (Gloria Reuben), the appallingly egomaniacal star who’s brought in to replace Simone — and again, Rebecca — and is allergic to nuts. And there are plenty around.
But Greta’s entrance dismantles not only Rebecca’s life but the movie: What had been a fairly fluid story arc doubles back on itself, and “The Understudy” feels as if it’s starting over, with Rebecca back in the forlorn place whence she came, with another diva on her back. A narrative aside here is the dubious romance between Rebecca and fireman Bobby (Paul Sparks), who begins as a likably offbeat eccentric and abruptly turns into a possessive lunatic. Sparks makes a valiant effort, but the script is working against him.
Pic lurches to a conclusion, not a minute too soon, and it’s simply too bad that such promising perfs were left adrift on this ice floe. Production values are fine, with an ironically perky score by Carl Davis.