Monday, January 20, 2014

"The Understudy": Hilarious Tumble into Kafkaesque Comedy at Renaissance Theaterworks

Ken T. Williams, as Harry. Ross Zentner
photo for RTW.
You're an actor cast in a play but told you will never go on. Nevertheless, you must rehearse -- on a set that changes arbitrarily under control of an unseen power. Another unseen power -- the almighty top-billed star -- radiates dread from far offstage.

Sounds a little Kafka-goes-to-the-theater, no?


That's Theresa Rebeck's The Understudy, the brutally and hysterically funny meta-farce running in a brilliant production at Renaissance Theaterworks.

A whiff of Sartre's No Exit also wafts through this play, as understudy Harry (Ken T. Williams), co-star Jake (Philip Sletteland) and all-business stage manager Roxanne (Cassandra Bissell) are trapped in a pointless rehearsal that is hell to them but devilishly funny to us.

I will not reveal too much, first because I wouldn't give away Understudy's Mousetrap-like twists. Second, being in the dark now and then is part of the fun -- Rebeck leaves us guessing often, and the result is suspense.

Who is that fellow on stage with the gun at the outset, and what is that monolog about, exactly? Is anyone up in the control room, or do those set elements move of their own volition? (Nathan Stuber designed the ingenious, gorgeous and impressively dynamic set.) Rebeck holds her cards close to the vest with such matters, and I won't lay them on the table prematurely.

But it wouldn't hurt to establish the pecking order and context. Jake is a second-string movie action star; Bruce, whom we never meet, is a major film star. The two of them took on a Broadway production of "Kafka's recently found and long-lost" play to enhance their artistic cred between movies. Harry, a journeyman actor, happened to know somebody who knew somebody and got the understudy job for both Bruce and Jake.

Harry and Jake's off-stage issues weave into Rebeck's plot and bleed ingeniously into the "Kafka" play they're "rehearsing." Of course, Rebeck invented that play-within-the-play, a smart pastiche and pointed satire of the Kafka stories we all read in high school. I like Rebeck's skepticism about Kafka's depth, and I like the way she expresses it through Roxanne's barbed tongue.

Bissell wields Roxanne's bitterness and intelligence with a surgeon's skill and a fencer's energy. Roxanne is the smartest person in the room, she knows it, and as a failed actress reduced to backstage work, she resents it. Rebeck loads Roxanne's ammunition belt, and Bissell never misses. She pops the fellows' -- and Kafka's -- artistic and philosophical pretensions like so many hot-air balloons.

Philip Sletteland, as Jake, Cassandra Bissell as Roxanne. Ross Zentner
photo for RTW.
Much of The Understudy is boys versus the girl. Harry and Jake begin as resentful rivals -- Harry's a slouchy passive-aggressive, Jake's a robust action-hero sort. They slowly evolve into something like frat buddies. As they get beyond the instant hostility of negative first impressions, they begin to talk about their lives and their ideas about art. The two men also conspire in petty naughtiness that drives Roxanne crazy.

For example, they eat the bananas called for in the play, which leads to a wildly funny existential discussion with an increasingly incensed Roxanne: When is a banana a banana and when is it a theatrical prop?

Gradual unfolding of character is a great joy of this play. We get to know the characters better as they get to know one another, and our impressions change as their impressions of one another change. Bissell, Williams and Sletteland, under the unerring direction of Mallory Metoxen, are wonderful at this. All of us are actors in real life, and our motivations and demeanor change as we reveal ourselves. Metoxen and her cast reproduce this process in a real-time show with utter authenticity.

At the same time, they deliver sparkling, precise comedy couched in one just-right line after another. This play, complex as it is, must be funny, and the Renaissance production nails it.

As we get deeper into the characters, we fall with them deeper into the Kafkaesque world of big-time show business. Understudy is a maze of realities: The mythical Kafka play, the play about a rehearsal of that play, Jake's recent blockbuster action film (re-enacted in part by the clowning guys), the imaginary show-business worlds of contracts and connections, the personal histories of the characters.

A final layer comes into play when the characters speak directly to us in the Studio Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center. Wait -- isn't the theater "empty"? To whom is the actor speaking, and is it the actor or the actor playing an actor who addresses us?

Makes your head spin. Very Kafka, but with less dread and more laughter.

The Understudy runs through Feb. 9. Tickets and info at the Renaissance Theaterworks website.

Recent striniwrites theater reviews: The Rep's End of the Rainbow and Woody Sez.