Add The Understudy to the list of enjoyable Broadway shows taking their leave of the Great White Way before they should. A new work by Theresa Rebeck, The Understudy is a quick but jam-packed dramedy about, as most great pieces of theater tend to be, the theater itself, both its current state and its value as an institution. It’s got a stellar cast who have great chemistry together and elevate the material. The design work is deserving of a much larger space (and budget). It’s got uproarious moments and poignant ones. And it’s closing on Sunday.
The action takes place in an unnamed New York theater, where a rehearsal is about to begin. The new understudy, long-suffering theater actor Harry (played by talented Justin Kirk), has arrived for his first rehearsal opposite box office draw but negligible talent Jake (Mark Paul Gosselaar–yes, that Mark Paul Gosselaar–proving himself more adept than the character he plays). The rehearsal is being run by stage manager Roxanne (the incomparable Julie White), who was an actress before working behind the scenes, and who was Harry’s fiancée before that.
While a good portion of the earlier scenes deal with Harry and Roxanne’s past, The Understudy is hardly a romantic drama. It’s also a farce, as the rehearsal proves to be a completely unpredictable mess of changing lights and rotating sets, due to a drug-addled and unseen techie in the control booth. The play is also a satire, as any arguments between trained thesp Harry and B-list action star Jake are often ended by Roxanne’s pragmatic, comic declarations of the way “show business” works nowadays. It’s also a celebration of the theater, for as the play progresses it asks the important question of why these characters do what they do. Why does Harry persist in this unstable, unfulfilling line of work? Why does Jake so desperately want to be seen as a serious actor? Why does Roxanne stay in this business, full of personal and professional disappointments? It’s because despite all the clashing egos, underhanded backstabbing, and inspiration-crushing bottom-line business ethos, the theater still offers something unique, enjoyable, and rewarding, for both those on the stage and in the seats.
After the show, my friend Kelly and I waited at the stage door for a chance to greet the cast. Julie White was the first one out, and we had a quick, friendly chat. We also took a picture. We met and photographed Justin Kirk as well. But the highlight was asking Mark-Paul Gosselaar to pose with us. When the security guard tried to take a picture for us, my camera failed to work. “Sorry,” I said, “I just got this camera.” “Oh, what kind is it?” asks Mr. Gosselaar. A bit thrown, I say, “Um…a Canon.” He holds out his hand. “Here, lemme see.” He starts rapidly pushing buttons and toggling menus, and then hands it back to the guard. “Try it now,” he says. And now my camera never fails to take a clear picture. So, thank you, Zach Morris, for the thirty-second tutorial.