At times, the cold, absurd frustrations of working in the theater can make you feel as if you are trapped in a Kafka play. “The Understudy,” a piece about a trio of idiosyncratic theater folk — each dealing with his own issues of reality, significance and identity, and all three involved in a Kafka production — thus has the potential to be either an existential fun house or a belabored dramaturgical conceit. It’s the latter for Theresa Rebeck’s comedy, receiving its preem at the Williamstown Theater Festival in the Berkshires.
Although theater insiders and lit majors may be amused, the sketchily drawn characters, far-fetched situation and big playing style in “The Understudy” doesn’t allow the work to connect with a deeper emotional core.
The production has terrific design values (especially a creepy, cuckoo set by Alexander Dodge), and the three thesps give it their all under helmer Scott Ellis. But it’s unclear if Rebeck wants to spoof Kafka a la “Young Frankenstein,” pay homage to the master of angst or work out some of her own theatrical demons. In this existential void, no one can hear you laugh.
Premise is a rehearsal for Harry (Reg Rogers), the understudy of one of the stars in a Broadway production of this faux “undiscovered” 3½-hour masterpiece by Kafka. The hyperactive, insecure Harry is having a difficult time coming to terms with the fact that the actor he is understudying in the play is an up-and-coming action film star, Jake (Bradley Cooper).
Harry’s fragile state is further complicated when he learns the production’s stage manager is Rebecca (Kristen Johnston), his onetime fiancee whom he abandoned six years earlier before their wedding.
All of the characters are desperately facing crises of confidence and visibility. Harry is so unsure of himself that he has changed his name and opted to start his life over again, hoping to shake off his loser persona.
Rebecca, who nicely points out the lack of women in Kafka’s work, gave up her acting career for the security and control of a behind-the-scenes job. Even handsome, earnest Jake — who thinks Kafka is “awesome” — feels like “a nobody” compared to Hollywood powers greater than himself.
Rebeck gets a good deal of mileage out of exploring various levels of reality and meaning, but her references to other Kafka works elicit not so much laughs as footnotes.
Too many elements of the narrative are unclear: Jake’s part is clearly the star role in the faux Kafka play, and it is unlikely that he would also understudy the other celeb in the production, the offstage superstar Bruce, who gets 10 times Jake’s salary per film — but who’s counting? (Everybody.)
Revelations that conversations are overheard on theater loudspeakers again and again are eyeball-rolling plot points; onstage chaos created by an unseen stoned assistant stage manager is a tiresome running gag and a strained plot device. But most difficult to take are the ever-changing relationships of the three characters as they inelegantly morph from jealousy to paranoia to kindness to resentment to love.
Rogers brings frantic energy and endless stage tics as the “I’m not bitter” Harry. The svelte and smashing-looking Johnston has a powerful stage presence and great comic timing. And Cooper manages to bring some sympathy, humor and sweetness to his dude of a star.
But as for the show’s future, it first needs another reality check.