Philip Sletteland and Cassandra Bissell (photos by Ross Zentner)
In the first few minutes of Renaissance Theaterworks’ production of The Understudy, it’s pretty clear what playwright Theresa Rebeck is up to. Harry (Ken T. Williams) is a Serious Actor (and, it goes without saying, an Impoverished Actor) who has been hired to understudy Jake (Philip Sletteland), an A-List movie star (or maybe A-Minus List), in a Broadway production of a play by Franz Kafka. Arriving in the empty theater, Harry offers a treatise (with pretend gunplay) on the differences (both moral and aesthetic) between serious theater and Hollywood shoot-‘em-ups. He is charming—in a shaggy puppy, fixed-gear, Brooklyn four-story-walk-up sort of way. And his take on movie-star shallowness is quickly confirmed when his star arrives—tan, dimpled, ripped and ready. Jake obviously speaks for the playwright, right? Rebeck surely has similar opinions about the nobility of the stage and the idiocy of La-La Land.
But don’t get too smug or comfortable. Rebeck is too smart and experienced a playwright to spend 90 minutes merely unloading on crass producers and egomaniacal actors. (Even though her recent experiences as creator and producer of Smash!, the ill-fated television series that postdates The Understudy, has certainly given her plenty of material to draw on.) There are surprises aplenty in The Understudy, and not just the ones that arrive courtesy of Nathan Stuber’s funhouse of a set design.
Ken T. Williams
Harry’s passion for Thee-ah-tah is soon debunked by the arrival of the stage manager, Roxanne (Cassandra Bissell), who as a real, working theater professional, has no patience for his Actor’s Studio BS (and it doesn’t help that the two were once engaged to be married). Soon, character dynamics and sympathies are shifting as unpredictably as the elements of Nathan Stuber’s funhouse of a set design (did I mention how cool the set is?). Jake isn’t the airhead he seems; Harry actually thinks his latest Hollywood blockbuster was awesome; Roxanne has a thing for Jake; Harry still has a thing for Roxanne. And the relationship between Jake and the unseen A-list Hollywood star who shares the Broadway stage with him isn’t as buddy-buddy as it first appears.
Rebeck is an actor’s playwright. She loves a good onstage romp, and that’s exactly what she gives Harry in The Understudy’s opening scene. And Williams and director Malory Metoxen have a great time with it—a hilarious bare-stage monolog that’s both charming character study and love letter to the theater. (This is before we see Nathan Stuber’s funhouse of a set design—have I told you about the amazing and hilarious scene changes?) And just when you think it’s Williams’ show, the other actors make their mark. Sletteland—taking his cues from his thespian rival—seems to play on the Hollywood stereotypes. But soon the humanity bubbles up from beneath his action-hero exterior, and both actor Sletteland and Rebeck create a sympathetic and vulnerable character who made seven-figures for his last movie. And Bissell’s Roxanne anchors the cast with a raw-nerved, nails-on-chalkboard performance that eventually mellows and gets under your skin in the best possible way.
It’s a high-wire act of a play, and Metoxen—in her debut as a director for a major company here—shows a savvy sense of balance, giving us tightly controlled moments and loosely structured scenes in which the actors can make merry. It’s the perfect touch for this carnival of a play, and she and her actors find just the right playfulness. In the play’s beautiful final moments, you’ll want to get up and dance right along with the characters from Kafka’s play, who find humor and joy in the rather absurd circumstances that often surround the crazy enterprise of telling a story onstage.