“The Understudy” a clever spoof of what happens when film stars get top theater roles

By Lucy Komisar

This gem of a play by Theresa Rebeck is a theater aficionado’s delight. A stage manager and two actors – one an overpaid film star and the other a struggling pure artist –connect in a rehearsal for a Broadway production of an undiscovered masterpiece by Franz Kafka. As the run-through proceeds, celebrity film actors who get starring roles in theater are deftly and comically skewered. The play, given light-hearted and subtle direction by Scott Ellis, is one of the best of the season. The cast is excellent.


Harry (Justin Kirk), the understudy for movie star Jake (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), is fiercely resentful of the big money that writers and actors like Jake pull down for film garbage. He riffs on an audition where he yells, Get down in the truck! for a mindless action movie. Get down, get down! It’s very funny. He didn’t get the job. Jake did. Justin’s Harry appears generally intelligent and Kirk plays him low key to capture our sympathy.

Gosselaar’s Jake seems like a hunk who one is surprised can learn his lines. Jake thinks the Kafka play is awesome.

Harry, however, turns out not to be as solid a guy as he portends. The very competent high-energy stage manager Roxanne (a delightful Julie White) is revealed as the actress girlfriend Harry ditched some years ago two weeks before their wedding.


One of the best lines occurs when Roxanne challenges Harry (who had changed his name) to prove his identity. He pulls out his Equity card. She questions its authenticity. Harry ripostes, Who would steal an Equity card? Like, what value is there to being a stage actor? Rebeck’s one-liners are very clever.

Almost as good, Jake, who in turn is understudy to the top star of the play, muses, Bruce could leave the show, he could get mercury poisoning That elicits a roar, because actor Jeremy Pivena a year ago left the hit Broadway revival of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow, blaming a high mercury count. Gosselaar does a good job as the savvy but not too smart star.

The status divisions are subtly expressed by the fact that Harry wears a brown suit (he has to appear businesslike) and Jake wears jeans and a blue T (he can dress as he pleases).


Rebeck throws in some semi-literate pretentiousness by Jake who complains of a translation that just doesn’t have the quality of disaster, the impending catastrophe cause if you ask me, the Castle is like, it’s death, man. It’s time itself. It’s the Nazis bearing down.

Jake exudes enthusiasm: Man I love this set. See the castle looming? Gorgeous, right?   It just says Kafka to me. Castle. Trial. Kafka!   All we need is like a giant bug in the middle of it, we’d be–oh!   And we have a giant bug! We also have an enormously talented playwright who has written a very clever and entertaining play.

The Understudy Written by Theresa Rebeck; Directed by Scott Ellis. Roundabout Theatre Company at Laura Pels Theatre 111 West 46th Street. Opened November 5, 2009; closes January 17, 2010. 212-719-1300.

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