Any actor would chafe at the restrictive regimen of a put-in rehearsal where a replacement or understudy must curb their creative instincts and learn the role as set by the director and reinforced by the stage manager, especially if it is a Broadway production that is doing well. I have unpleasant memories of being put-in for a twelve-week stint as a replacement in a production of Angry Housewives (not on Broadway). It was a torturous rehearsal process supervised by the choreographer, but the show had been running for two years, you are being paid, and you do what you are told to do. They don’t tell you about things like that in acting school. I eventually made the role my own through discipline and craft, but the unpleasant memory lingers.
Theresa Rebeck’s splendid dark comedy, The Understudy, reveals the truth of the situation in ninety minutes of touching, hilarious, affecting action. Harry (Sean Cowhig) is a struggling, unsuccessful actor. He has his Equity card, but so what? He’s broke. He finally has an opportunity to be paid as an understudy in the Broadway staging of an undiscovered masterpiece by Franz Kafka. The show is headlined by a couple of movie actors, an action star, Jake (Justin Michael Terry), who knocked down two point two million dollars in his latest gig, and a bigger star in the lead role whose salary for film work is in the twenty-two million dollar range. Such money is mind boggling to Harry. It seems unjust to him and he mocks Jake’s signature line in the movie, “Get in the truck!”
The two men struggle through the put-in rehearsal supervised by the stage manager, Roxanne (Andria Kozica), who is shocked to see Harry. Six years before, Harry disappeared just two weeks before their wedding. Their meeting shifts the play into high gear with a super abundance of dark, humorous, yet touching angst. As Roxanne struggles to keep her actors on task, an unseen assistant named Laura, up in the booth, consistently runs the wrong the cues while presumably toking on a doobie. I would call all this Kafkaesque.
Under the snappy direction of Dana Martin, this appealing cast is excellent, keeping the action in high gear. Produced at The Art of Acting Studio on a bare stage with just a table, a couple of chairs and a few props, the players prove once again that all that is truly needed for theatrical performance is a “board,” a play and an audience. If you are indoors it helps to have lights (Ray Jones) and it is nice to have clothes (Krystle Conrad). And, as the play itself proves, you need a stage manager (Rachael Johnson). Operating the board is not pot smoking Laura, but the sober, efficient Patrick J. Praxel. The excellent sound design is the work of Dana Martin and Patrick J. Praxel.
The Understudy, which closes tonight, February 18, is produced by Bull & Bearer Theatre Company at The Art of Acting Studio, 1017 North Orange Drive in Los Angeles.