The Understudy

The one-act gains considerable fizz from punchy production and bristling interplay of its actors.

'The Understudy'

Would Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman be playing to capacity crowds every night on Broadway if “A Steady Rain” were a three-hour “undiscovered masterpiece” by Kafka? That’s one oblique question that springs from the absurdist scenario posed by Theresa Rebeck in her amusing riff on theater-world pecking order, “The Understudy.” Funny but slight, clever but without any real depth, the one-act gains considerable fizz from Scott Ellis’ punchy production and from the bristling interplay of its three fine actors, each of them exposing different shades of a profession that ricochets between glory and rejection.

The play opens literally with a bang, as Harry (Justin Kirk) leaps onto designer Alexander Dodge’s bare stage set waving a prop gun. In a funny stream-of-consciousness rant delivered with manic volatility by Kirk, and in the scenes that follow, we learn that Harry is a gifted actor reduced to understudying a “talent-free” movie star. That star, Jake (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), is hot off a $67 million opening weekend in a moronic monster-tornado action movie for which Harry also auditioned. “I’m not bitter,” says Harry. “OK, I am a little bitter but that doesn’t change facts.”

Those facts — and here’s the first place Rebeck’s conceit feels strained — are that Jake, in turn, is also understudy to a significantly bigger movie star (his quote is $22 million per picture as opposed to Jake’s low-end $2.3 million) in Kafka’s existential two-hander, packing them in on Broadway. Harry has been hired to cover Jake, making it unlikely he’ll ever get to go on.

Rebeck whips up a quintessentially Kafkaesque brew in the play within the play, which basically is a mishmash of “The Trial” and “The Castle.” She then lets that enigmatic reality — thick with paranoia, judgment, guilt, fear, identity confusion, shame, anxiety and isolation — spill over into the main action.

Both Harry’s resentment and Jake’s suspicion are further fueled by hyper-agitated Roxanne (Julie White), who was dumped without explanation by Harry six years earlier, two weeks before their planned wedding. Roxanne has her own issues, having had to put aside her ambitions as an actress for steadier work as a stage manager. Over an eventful day of rehearsals, Rebeck adroitly switches the upper hand within the trio as insecurities are revealed.

Possibly the most poignant of these come from Jake, who seems smug, shallow and cocksure until his achievements are put into perspective against those of the unseen Broadway headliner, Bruce. Jake’s touching earnestness as he extols the awesomeness of Kafka’s vision, or his unconvincing attempt to shrug it off when he gets nixed for a more challenging upcoming movie role, convey a hunger to be taken seriously that puts all his perceived success in a different light.

Gosselaar is the best of the three at revealing the frustration and wavering confidence beneath the bravado, but Kirk and White bring other assets to the table.

Kirk’s twitchy energy and mocking intelligence suggest how deeply it gnaws away at Harry that his talents have been undervalued, while White’s more aggressive sarcasm performs the same trick from a different angle. He’s deadpan with occasional outbursts, while she’s sharp, winding up into shrieking hysteria; the static created by their contrasting styles feeds the play’s humor. (There are also droll distinctions between Kirk and Gosselaar in-character or in Actor mode for their scenes rehearsing the Kafka play.)

Roxanne’s brittle observations on the way male egos are indulged in show business inevitably recall White’s Tony-winning role in “The Little Dog Laughed,” with some fresh bite. The character’s take-down of Kafka’s treatment of women playfully allows Rebeck to chafe at the literary giant’s narrowly phallocentric view, while discussion of the Czech author’s on-off relationship with Felice Bauer throws fresh salt on the wounds of Roxanne’s history with Harry.

Some of the play’s basic mechanics are a little shaky, such as a repeated reliance on conversations being overheard through backstage speakers, or the lax attention to lighting and set cues from Roxanne’s stoned assistant in the control booth. The narrative convenience of the former and the easy, farcical laughs of the latter (amplified by Dodge’s amusingly overblown theatrical sets) point up Rebeck’s failure to go deeper into the emotional discomfort bred by the destabilizing chaos of theater work.

Ellis does a decent job of disguising that superficiality with buoyant direction, even if the play does have more moments of fatigue than a 95-minute one-act should. But there are tart insights into the decay of entertainment culture — including the “pathology” of movie stars reigning supreme on Broadway — that represent an improvement over Rebeck’s belabored handling of similar themes in her last New York premiere, “Our House.”

The Understudy

Laura Pels Theater; 404 seats;$80 top

  • Production: A Roundabout Theater Company presentation of a play in one act by Theresa Rebeck. Directed by Scott Ellis.
  • Crew: Sets, Alexander Dodge; costumes, Tom Broecker; lighting, Kenneth Posner; original music and sound, Obadiah Eaves; production stage manager, David H. Lurie. Opened Nov. 5, 2009. Reviewed Oct. 30. Running time: 1 HOUR, 35 MIN.
  • Cast: Harry - Justin Kirk Jake - Mark-Paul Gosselaar Roxanne - Julie White
  • Music By: