BWW Reviews: They Do Not Serve Who Only Stand And Wait - THE UNDERSTUDY at Everyman
Is Theresa Rebeck serious? In The Understudy, a play where the audience is constantly laughing, is she reaching for something profound? Or is the question even meaningful? If the universe is absurd, and the world of the theater mirrors that absurdity, and the play in turn mirrors the world of the theater, how can it be meaningful to call the play either tragic or comic? The distinction may not compute.
What we know is that we come into life with a desire to do meaningful things, just as an understudy comes into the theater motivated to produce great thespian art. Yet if the understudy is our avatar, how discouraging is his example! For, as in Rebeck's play, the understudy's task is condemned to nearly certain futility. Particularly so on today's Broadway, where plays are too often packaged as vehicles for screen stars whom the audience pays a large premium to see, in productions with limited runs. The setup is almost guaranteed to incentivize producers to demand that the big screen stars appear at every performance, and to incentivize the stars to do so, affording no opportunity to the understudies, stage actors who wait fretfully, paid but not called upon, in the wings. Pace Milton, they do not serve who only stand and wait. They wish that they could serve, but that is not the same thing at all.
Harry the understudy (Clifton Brandhagen) is warned that he has no chance to appear. He's told this by Jake (Danny Gavigan), the action film star he's brought in to sub for if the call ever comes. He's warned that he is so insignificant in comparison with a man who commands $2.2 million a film and whose last outing did $65 million in box office the first weekend that no one will let him on the stage. Even if Jake were inclined to yield the spotlight, it is Harry's bad luck to be subject to the dictates of Roxanne the stage manager (Beth Hylton) with whom he has, let us say, a history, one that does not incline her to give him a break.
In Rebeck's 2007 play, the action revolves around one of these star-driven vehicles, a supposedly newly-discovered play by Franz Kafka, whose oeuvre was completely devoted to limning the menacing absurdity of life. So both the play and the play-within-the-play preach the same sermon: You may be trying to do something that attains meaning by being witnessed and judged, but in truth no one will ever see you or judge you. As an understudy, you are condemned to eliciting what meaning you can from what one frustrated character in A Chorus Line summed up as "dancing for my own enjoyment." And in fact that is exactly what the three characters in the play end up doing, as depicted above, in a deliberately insane tableau played before a backdrop painted expressionistically to signify a Kafka-esque prison. (It has turned out, just before that moment, that the action star and the stage manager are as insignificant and as fated to be as invisible as is the humble understudy.)
Rebeck's potentially bleak vision is softened by her evident love of the theater and of theater people (also on display in Season 1 of Smash - the good season, not the horrible second one - for which Rebeck was the show runner). The show is full of affectionate insider humor, about the difference in the value of Equity cards versus Screen Actors Guild cards, about not eating the props, about the imperturbability of stage managers. And Rebeck is too canny a playwright to depict the characters as mere flat stereotypes. One develops an affection for these three, including the initially prickly action-movie actor, as they wend their way down the path to inconsequentiality. Each of them, it emerges, has an integrity, the core of which is a desire to help construct whatever it is that somehow makes a play so paradoxically real an experience, even in the face of an existential moment that deprives them of the crucial counterparty in the transaction: an audience.
Director Joseph W. Ritsch keeps the action moving and the jokes flowing, and Daniel Ettinger's sets, which amusingly conjure up every cliche about Kafka's imagined world are alone with the price of admission.
A final note: Although I've written before about the Everyman company in these pages, I managed to miss its inaugural season in its new home on Baltimore's Fayette Street, so this was my first opportunity to see Everyman in its gleaming new space, which suits the players well. Baltimore now has three professional repertory troupes with their own spaces (the others being the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company and the Single Carrot Theatre). Putting these together with all the other organizations, professional, community, and academic, that bring theater to Charm City, many representatives of which were in attendance at the premiere along with the familiar faces from the critical community, I was struck by how Baltimore truly feels like a theater town of real synergies, whose time of greatness has come.
The Understudy, by Theresa Rebeck, directed by Joseph W. Ritsch, through September 28, at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. Tickets $10 to $60, 410-752-2208, www.everymantheatre.org. Adult language, gunfire.