Review: “The Understudy” by Theresa Rebeck. Produced by Seattle Public Theater. Directed by Kelly Kitchens. With Mike Dooly, Brenda Joyner and John Ulman. Now through February 17 at The Bathhouse Theater/Green Lake.
One of the great pitfalls about reviewing theater is having to suffer/enjoy excellent productions of awful plays. Such is the case with Seattle Public Theater’s staging of Theresa Rebeck’s “The Understudy”, a well directed, designed and acted production of a play that isn’t very good. Ms Rebeck is a successful and ridiculously prolific playwright best known for “Mauritius”, which was staged by Seattle Public a couple years ago, and her recently ended writing/producing work on the television show “Smash” (she did not return for its second season). She’s written 20 full length plays, including the recently closed (and failed) “Dead Accounts” which starred Katie Holmes and Norbert Leo Butz; many one act works and a large number of teleplays. She’s a workaholic and judging by the three plays of hers I’ve encountered, she needs to write less and re-write more.
“The Understudy” concerns an actor coming into a theater to rehearse his role as an understudy in a hot Broadway show about…Kafka, an unlikely source for a hit play in the high stakes world of contemporary Broadway theater. “Kafka” is apparently a hit because it stars a huge action movie star, only referred to as “Bruce” and apparently we’re supposed to believe that it’s Mr. Willis who’s headlining this megahit. The co-star in this extravaganza is another, lesser movie action hero named Jake, who is also the understudy for the star, Bruce. Our young actor, named Harry, has signed on to understudy for both Jake and Bruce. Despite the fact NONE of this makes sense, this is the basic premise of “The Understudy” which concerns Harry rehearsing with the vainglorious Jake and dealing with the fact that the stage manager for this production is Roxanne, Harry’s former love that he dumped at the altar. Wackiness ensues including the machinations of an apparently stoned light board operator and lots of rehearsing of various moments from the world of Kafka. And, it makes very little sense.
I had a lovely Facebook conversation with a friend about this production and since it really nailed down my thoughts about this play, I’m going to be lazy and cut and paste them into my review…which is probably similar to Ms Rebeck’s writing practices…
The play started, then about a third of the way through, I HATED it so damn much I wanted to leave. I mean, REALLY fucking loathed it. Then, it got better…somewhat and I liked the scenes where they were doing stuff from the Kafka play…I wanna see THAT play!
I don’t like Theresa Rebeck…I’ve seen three of her plays now, and loathed two of them. She’s written like 20 plays and she’s only like 50. They’re so damn contrived and the illogical stuff in the script drove me insane. And, I really hated the stupid “love triangle” stuff…so stupid and cliched. I was starting to think maybe the big ending was gonna be that the movie star was actually gay, (which would have been sort of cool) but she didn’t go there.
No, I thought the actual production: the acting, directing, and design elements were all really good. It’s just the text itself that is (largely) dreadful.
And, examples of things that were illogical:
1) Huge movie stars who do Broadway plays ALWAYS do them for limited runs…usually 12-16 weeks. That’s it; they do not do open ended runs.
2) No, not even Bruce Willis is going to be able to close and pay off a Broadway show so he can run off and do a movie.
3) A second tier action star that was just in a movie that grossed $90 million dollars in its opening weekend is NOT going to understudy another actor. And, if such a second tier star had that kind of opening weekend for his film, he would IMMEDIATELY move up a rung on the Hollywood ladder and have a higher quote. That’s how Hollywood works.
4) A disoriented pot smoking union light board operator would immediately be fired for showing up to work in any sort of disoriented condition despite the fact her uncle is a “somebody”.
5) The actual fake gun used in a show would probably not be used in a rehearsal and if they did, the propmaster would have to be on hand to take it out of its locked case and make sure it was safely returned. It’s Broadway and it’s all union. And, there are very strict rules about firearms.
Well, that about says it all. “The Understudy” has so much irritating contrivance and enough plot holes to sink the Titanic that it’s frequently difficult to stomach. What does work, is the assured direction by Kelly Kitchens and the clever design work by Richard Schaefer (Set and Lights) and Dustin Morache (Sound) and the three excellent performances from John Ulman, Brenda Joyner and especially Mike Dooly as the action hero with a heart of gold. Ms Rebeck does manage to give Jake some depth and charm and there’s more beneath Jake’s surface than just a dumb movie star. (Mr. Dooly’s excellent performance and the fact he’s obviously been working out a lot lately would indicate he really COULD be an action movie star.) The superb ensemble work of the actors helped make this show bearable, and at times, moderately enjoyable solely based on their chemistry and the strength of the performances. And, the moments in the play where they actually rehearse the scenes from “Kafka” are very engaging and despite the fact Ms Rebeck is poking a bit of fun at the idea of a Kafka play starring action heroes, I’d be far more inclined to see that attempted than the majority of her plays.
As for Seattle Public’s production of “The Understudy” it’s a tough call…the actual production is very good but the text doesn’t live up to all their hard work. If you can stomach the dreck of some elements of the script, you could have a very entertaining night of theater.