As we were reminded with the recent West End revival of Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser, there are many important contributors to theatre who take in the smell of the greasepaint but not the roar of the crowd. American writer Theresa Rebeck’s play celebrates those men and women who carry out the thankless task for which all theatregoers should be thankful, that of being an understudy. They wait in the wings night after night, hoping to step into the spotlight, knowing that, if it ever happens, they will have to face an audience disappointed that an adored star is off with flu.
Rebeck’s play shows us a hierarchical acting profession. At the top is Bruce (not seen), a Broadway and Hollywood star who has the leading role. On the second tier is Jake (Leonard Sillevis), a star of terrible action movies, who is second lead. Bottom of the pile comes Harry (Samuel John), a method actor who takes his art seriously and works as an understudy just to get Equity minimum pay. In the unlikely event of Bruce being off, Jake would step up to take the leading role and Harry would replace Jake.
Beleaguered stage manager Roxanne (Emma Taylor) takes charge of the understudies’ rehearsal in which the two actors’ differing perspectives on their profession puts them at odds. Jake never misses an opportunity to mention that the movie that Harry thinks dire had a $67million opening weekend and Harry makes no secret of the fact that he feels bitter. To make things worse, Jake and Roxanne have a thing going on, but Harry is the ex who jilted her almost at the altar. Coping with technical failures and actors who hide and eat the props, Roxanne leads a catastrophic run-through.
The play within the play is a Broadway production of a newly-found work by Franz Kafka, infused with jokes and a dance routine. Happily, it is easier to get laughs from Rebeck’s writing than from most of Kafka and her exercise in theatre introspection has wit and relevance. Roxanne’s plea that more of the 15 male characters in the play need to be played by women resonates particularly strongly. However the playwright occasionally loses her way and, although Russell Lucas’s in-the-round staging fizzes more often than it falls flat, there are times when the comedy needs to be sharper.
Slight and uneven, The Understudy wears thin over 90 minutes and ultimately underwhelms, but well judged tongue-in-cheek performances lift it and there is always considerable amusement in seeing theatre people mocking those that they know and love best.
Performance date: 23 February 2017
Photo: Simon Annand