Seeing The Understudy by Theresa Rebeck at the Westport Country Playhouse reminded me of a Hollywood Reporter article written by Betty Gilpin of Glow fame, which made its way around Facebook a few weeks ago. The article highlighted the highs and lows of the acting profession, which struck a chord with many of my actor and non-actor friends. Who can deny the rush of emotions we feel when we are at the top of our game, or the sometimes crippling depression that can affect us when life throws inevitable obstacles our way? Actors are a special breed, because the very nature of their chosen profession regularly subjects them to this emotional roller-coaster existence.
The ups and downs of show business are on full display with Westport Country Playhouse’s hit production of The Understudy. Rebeck, the creator of the NBC showbiz drama Smash, here presents a hilarious and often moving study of the delicate psyches of Broadway performers. The brilliance of this backstage comedy lies not only in the clever script, or even in the way the author touches on the emotions and humanity of her characters, but in the very structure of the play itself.
The Understudy is set during the understudy rehearsal for a production of a play by Franz Kafka. Stage manager Roxanne, convincingly and realistically played by Andrea Syglowski, is confronted by her ex-fiancé Harry when he shows up to learn his role from a mid-level action hero actor named Jake. Harry is played by Connecticut Critics Circle award winner Eric Bryant, and in a brilliant bit of art imitating life, Jake is played by ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. actor Brett Dalton.
Everyone’s anxieties are on full display. Roxanne gave up her acting career to pay for the wedding that did not take place after Harry abruptly left her at the altar, and Harry is more than a little bit bitter about that fact that he auditioned for and did not get a role in the movie that made Jake a star. Jake is also on edge because he is waiting to hear from his agent about a meatier film role he auditioned for that would give him legitimacy as a real actor. Everyone is questioning who they are and craving outside validation. The fact that it all takes place within the confines of a newly discovered work by Kafka adds an extra element of absurdity to their existential woes.
This is not to say that The Understudy is a heavy-handed exercise in existentialism. The author manages to make us laugh with the characters instead of at them by humanizing each with personal quirks and clever repartee. She also allows us to witness the developing, easygoing camaraderie of backstage theater life, where for even a brief time, competitors can become compatriots participating in an artistic experience they can all be proud of.
It helps that all of the actors are adept at realizing their individual characters. Bryant is endearing as Harry, from his snarky declarations of not being bitter about being overlooked to his earnestness about being an actor. Syglowksi is excellent too: Thankfully, her Roxanne is not a caricature of a shrewish jilted lover but brilliantly portrayed as a strong woman in control who finds herself teetering on the edge of vulnerability. Dalton is also perfect as action hero Jake, giving a nuanced performance that does not dissolve into the caricature of a preening movie star, but is amiable, approachable, and moving in his anxiety and his vulnerability to the caprices of celebrity.
The creative direction by David Kennedy also helps to keep this play well-paced, light, and easygoing. A surprising addition to the comedy is the combination of the inventive set design by Andrew Boyce, lighting by Matthew Richards, and sound design by Fitz Patton, all of which is controlled by an unseen and possibly stoned crew member in the control booth. Choreographer Noah Racy adds an unexpected element of movement to the play, providing a moment of good-natured goofiness between Harry and Jake, as well as the hilarious end dance celebrating the absurdity of the actor’s life.
The Understudy runs through September 1 at the Westport Country Playhouse. Visit their website or call 203-227-4177 for tickets.