The Understudy -- Theater Review

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Veteran playwright Theresa Rebeck, whose "Mauritius" played on Broadway a couple of seasons ago, certainly has an insider's view of the theater, which she employs to intermittently entertaining effect in "The Understudy." This play, previously seen at Williamstown with a cast including Bradley Cooper, puts a comic spotlight on one of the less-heralded jobs in the acting profession.

The play, set at an understudy rehearsal for a fictional play by Franz Kafka, depicts the often-contentious interactions among three characters: Jake (Mark-Paul Gosselaar, of "Raising the Bar" and "NYPD Blue"), a rising movie star making his Broadway debut; Roxanne (Tony winner Julie White), a harried stage manager; and Harry (Justin Kirk, of "Weeds"), as Jake's newly hired understudy who, we quickly learn, has a rocky romantic history with Roxanne.

Harry, as his frequent monologues reveal, has a rather bitter attitude about his gig and especially his perceived lack of talent in Jake, who has just appeared in a big action movie that grossed $67 million its opening week, and the unseen "Bruce," an even bigger action movie star who is the show's marquee draw.

Needless to say, the actors engage in a spirited debate about their contributions, with Jake resentful of Harry's condescending attitude. Roxanne is more than a little upset by the return of her ex, for whom she still harbors much bitterness toward. Not so much, however, that the two don't begin to rekindle their old flame, even after she has engaged in a passionate embrace with the hunky Jake.

There's much that the playwright gets right with her comic premise, including the imagined sections of Kafka's "play," which are a perfect imitation of the writer's style, and her depiction of the professional rivalries endemic to the acting profession.

But there's just as much that falls flat or is repeated to the point of tedium: A running gag about an apparently stoned (unseen) tech manager quickly loses comic steam, the romantic complications of the three characters have a generic feel, and the fact that every conversation onstage can be heard via a loudspeaker system covering every square inch of the theater strains credibility. It also seems highly unlikely that Jake, one of the show's leads, also would be the understudy for his co-star.

Still, there are many funny lines and bits of business, and under the direction of Scott Ellis, the actors deliver highly amusing performances. Although she's slightly too old for the role, White is an absolute hoot as the increasingly frazzled Roxanne, the highly buff Gosselaar is perfect as the slumming, overly serious Jake, and Kirk overplays in terrifically entertaining fashion as the career-frustrated Harry. Kudos, too, to Alexander Dodge's ever-shifting sets, which conjure a Kafkaesque world so effectively that they could instantly be employed in a real-life production.

Venue: Laura Pels Theatre, New York (Through Jan. 3)
Cast: Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Justin Kirk, Julie White
Playwright: Theresa Rebeck
Director: Scott Ellis
Set designer: Alexander Doge
Costume designer: Tom Broecker
Lighting designer: Kenneth Posner
Original music/sound designer: Obadiah Eaves
Presented by: the Roundabout Theatre Company
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