The Artists Repertory Theater kicks off its season with Theresa Rebeck’s meta-comedy The Understudy.
In a scene midway through Theresa Rebeck’s glimpse into the world of theater understudies, the question is repeatedly posed, “how would Franz Kafka point a gun?” Would it be slick and confident, like action star Jake (Jared Q. Miller) demonstrates? Would it be shaky and bumbling, as understudy and relentless irritant, Harry (Gavin Hoffman) improvises? Or, as distressed stage manager and understudy wrangler, Roxanne (Ayanna Berkshire) would argue: the gun is only a symbol of the kind of patriarchal tyranny prevalent in Kafka’s writing, and should not be pointed at all.
Okay, I made that last part up, but the narrative centering on the understudy rehearsal of a fictional Franz Kafka play ultimately serves the late writer with a feminist revisionism he didn’t even know he was due for. This, and the consistent underlying fear that no one in the audience will notice these small details—or worse—ever see the play at all, elevates The Understudy above the other meta-showbiz-plays, of which there are many.
It is indulgent stuff. And, if like me, your ears are still ringing from the overwrought, overlong monologues of the now-Academy Award winning Birdman, you might not have been in the mood for another character study of the semi-successful middle-aged actor. But there are other forces at work here—most notably Artist Rep veteran Berkshire’s Roxanne, who balances not only the egos of the two men, but also that of Kafka, who haunts the whole production like a fog.
The run-through of the fictional play, The Man Who Disappeared, quickly takes on many shades as Roxanne vainly tries to direct the lead’s understudy (Jake), and the seemingly useless second understudy (Harry), who is quickly revealed to have a sorted history with Roxanne. Equally significant is the off-screen board operator, “Laura,” whose miscues from the booth result in new combinations of sets and stage effects that keep the action moving at a good clip and force the players to adopt new roles and postures. Another device, where one of the three actors is always able to overhear the others talking on the off-stage loud speaker, offers an evolving set of dynamics and tensions.
Hoffman’s Harry has the most to do of the three, and arguably does the best with it. The performance enhances the idea that though he might be a stronger actor than Jake, he’s done far less to grease the wheels both in acting and in life. While Jake’s movie star might seem like an empty suit jacket representing that great beyond of fame and fortune, we are made aware that he only occupies the ladder’s next rung, of which there are many. He might have made $2.3 million dollars for his recent tornado action flick, but he points out that Bruce—the Kafka play’s actual lead—commands upwards of $20 million per film. While this produces exactly zero tears for Jake’s character, we do witness the various ways the off-screen Harrison Ford-like figure may have tormented someone like Jake’s Kurt Russell over the course of his career.
The Roxanne character, who must navigate her own Kafkaesque night mirror of masculine anxieties, stoned prop technicians, and re-emerging ex-fiancés, is really the play’s center. “Why is silence a choice,” she asks Harry, “why is that such a good idea to you?” Of course, she’s talking not only of Harry but the kind of fly-by-night man he represents. It’s a good question—in Kafka and life alike. It’s not always the anguish that finally does the most damage to a person, it’s the unanswered questions. Equally thought provoking is her assertion that if one of the dozen characters in the three-hour Trial-like play were cast as a woman, far more justice would have been served (this got a huge applause from precisely half the audience). It makes you think just how much more fair a legal system administered by women might be.
Well, it made me think anyway.
The Artists Rep is a great venue for this kind of intimate show. Instead of one large space, the building is divided into two smaller, stadium-style theaters, where seats surround the stage on three sides. The result is a well-engaged audience that has been cultivated over the theater’s long run.
Director Michael Mendelson—who also has a long list of acting credits to his name—is well fitted for this material where the nature of an actor’s life is on the examination table. Certainly a choice was made at some point to play up the comedic elements, and as a result, the gear never fully switches to poignant. Granted, it’s a tough transition to make, but there isn’t much space between jokes for the profundities to really sink in. But there are plenty of options out there featuring unchecked performers beating their chests and screeching about their feelings, and some of them have been given Oscars.
The emotional climax of The Understudy gives way to a closing number that might have made Kafka tumble out of his coffin, and quickly brought the audience to its feet. It’s a strong start to the season for a theater clicking with the rhythm of a watch and continuing to provide interesting material year after year.