Friday, November 6, 2009

The Understudy


By Theresa Rebeck. Directed by Scott Ellis. At The Laura Pels Theater. (CLOSED)

You might have heard that Julie White is in this play. If you haven't reading any one of these reviews will remind you or that in big starry Technicolor: JULIE WHITE IS IN THIS SHOW! might as well be the blurb on the poster. The now-beloved comedic actress, who won a Tony for playing a high powered agent in The Little Dog Laughed, plays a stage manager at a put-in rehearsal for an understudy who also just happens to be the man who left her at the--oh, who cares, Julie White is in the show. Theresa Rebeck gets high marks from some, and everyone praises the Kafka parody that makes up a chunk of the show. Justin Kirk and Mark Paul Gosselar also are widely praised for their performances. Some detractors (and even some boosters) fault the play for being thin, for not making a lot of sense, and for plowing well-tilled soil. And even a couple of critics--notably Linda Winer and Elisabeth Vincentelli--don't particularly like Julie White's performance. Did I mention she was in this show?

TalkinBroadway A
(Matthew Murray) The Understudy is so sly a satire of Kafka’s writing, and so smart a comic exploration of how the famed German author’s output could apply to the existentialist musings of theatre folk just standing by life, that its playwright, Theresa Rebeck, may herself need to adopt a heretofore unfamiliar appellation: insightful comedienne.

Lighting and Sound America A
(David Barbour) By the time all three characters get together for an utterly pointless gesture of joy in the face of an uncaring world, Rebeck has long since won over the audience with her own brand of screwball hilarity. The Understudy is such an accomplished piece of fun that -- who knows? -- it might even make old Franz K crack a smile or two

Wall Street Journal A-
(Terry Teachout) I suspect that America's regional theaters are going to be seeing a lot of The Understudy next season. Not only is it pulverizingly funny, but the fact that it's a three-hander means that it can be done on the cheap. That's OK by me, though I wish that Ms. Rebeck had had the courage of her convictions: If she'd chosen to eschew sentiment and stay funny from curtain to curtain, The Understudy might have been comparable in quality to Michael Frayn's "Noises Off," the best of all possible backstage farces. But The Understudy works on its own switch-hitting terms, enough so that I wonder whether the Roundabout Theatre Company might want to move it to a larger house. Now that "Brighton Beach Memoirs" has crashed and burned, we could use a good, solid comedy on Broadway, and "The Understudy" fills the bill with laughs to spare.

The New Yorker A-
(Unsigned) Though the play is undermined by a few flaws, Rebeck’s script and the three excellent actors are terrific when the play hits its stride, delivering a clever indictment of contemporary theatre while making the characters’ personal circumstances ever more Kafkaesque: they are no more in control of the forces of celebrity, art, money, and Broadway than they are of their own fates.

NY Magazine A-
(Dan Kois) White’s loopy voice rises in panic and falls into sorrow, just as her hands nervously fly up to tie her hair into a ponytail, pull it free, and tie it up again. She’s the best of a thoroughly excellent trio, rounded out by Justin Kirk as the talented Harry, and Mark-Paul Gosselaar as Jake, the Hollywood action star for whom a bitter Harry is the understudy. All three expertly patch over the holes in Rebeck’s occasionally thin script, while handling the show’s well-written, soulful conclusion with grace. And director Scott Ellis makes great hay of the ridiculous, yet oh-so-believable, idea of Kafka on Broadway, complete with vertiginous sets, overwrought music cues, and onstage precipitation.

Backstage A-
(David Sheward) Still, The Understudy has plenty of pointed observations on the frustrations of trying to be an artist in a crassly commercial world. Directed by Scott Ellis with straightforward speed and economy, it's a fast, funny 90 minutes. Julie White, probably the sharpest comedian working on stage today, makes Roxanne a delightfully conflicted figure: supremely competent at putting a show together but a mess when it comes to her personal life. Watch her twisted dance of anger as she hides her head in her sweater when she realizes she must work with her former lover. And the way she brandishes her cell phone like a weapon when she threatens Harry with calling the producers to fire him if he doesn't straighten up and fly right is an acting lesson in itself.

TheaterMania B+
(Sandy MacDonald) The authenticity that the actors achieve also helps to brings out Rebeck's brilliant layering of themes. Much as she might make fun of Kafka -- she gives Roxanne a great scene skewering his view of women -- she gets him deeply. After all, what could be more Kafkaesque that an unsuccessful actor trying against all odds to be heard and seen -- or a supposedly successful one adrift in a wasteland of pop culture? Still, the charming closing scene leaves us with a glimmer of hope for this odd-lot trio and their quest for some kind of meaningful recognition.

NY1 B+
(David Cote) While Rebeck’s material is breezy and never too dark, taking easy potshots at Hollywood and Broadway, there’s admirable skill and intelligence in its execution, and sympathy for her struggling characters. Scott Ellis’s production is impeccably cast and paced, with White wringing big laughs out of the simplest inflection and a raised eyebrow. Kirk, a regular on the TV show "Weeds," specializes in smartass charm and understated punch lines. And Gosselaar keeps pace with the least flashy but most affecting part. All in all, The Understudy is a bittersweet portrait of people forgetting who they are in the mad rush to become something else.

Entertainment Weekly B
Pity that there's not more chemistry between White and Kirk, whose characters have a long and complicated romantic history; alas, there's even less between White and Gosselaar. (In the play's summer 2008 premiere at Massachusetts' Williamstown Theatre Festival — where EW named it one of the best shows of 2008 — Kristen Johnston was a better match with costars Bradley Cooper and Reg Rogers.) But when it comes to slapping guys or threatening to hit them with shovels, White simply can't be topped.

Variety B-
(David Roony) Funny but slight, clever but without any real depth, the one-act gains considerable fizz from Scott Ellis' punchy production and from the bristling interplay of its three fine actors, each of them exposing different shades of a profession that ricochets between glory and rejection.

(Michael Kuchwara) The play is slight and not as funny as it should be. Please, no more Jeremy Piven-mercury poisoning jokes, for one thing. Yet director Scott Ellis has marshaled his ingratiating cast — Julie White, Justin Kirk and Mark-Paul Gosselaar — well. And they are a game group, giving spirited performances in this brisk 90 minutes of often noisy confrontation.

Hollywood Reporter C+
(Frank Scheck) There's much that the playwright gets right with her comic premise, including the imagined sections of Kafka's "play," which are a perfect imitation of the writer's style, and her depiction of the professional rivalries endemic to the acting profession. But there's just as much that falls flat or is repeated to the point of tedium: A running gag about an apparently stoned (unseen) tech manager quickly loses comic steam, the romantic complications of the three characters have a generic feel, and the fact that every conversation onstage can be heard via a loudspeaker system covering every square inch of the theater strains credibility. It also seems highly unlikely that Jake, one of the show's leads, also would be the understudy for his co-star.

OnOffBroadway C+
(Matt Windman) Scott Ellis' animated 90-minute production makes up for the underwhelming text by providing solid laughs, energized performances, and a strange scenic design that twists and turns to reveal ridiculously elaborate, Kafkaesque settings. The play even ends with a soft-shoe dance sequence.

Newsday C-
(Linda Winer) The 90-minute comedy loses steam when it abandons its sharp show-biz satire for soap-opera relationship stuff, but Rebeck's idea of a star-driven Kafka hit on Broadway is ridiculous enough to feel like truth.

NYDaily News C-
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Despite some funny lines, a supercool cast and awesome sets by Alexander Dodge, the play-within-a-play built around a run-through of a long-lost Kafka epic comes off as an overblown sketch with a worthy message: Everyone's a zero-status standby at some point. Or, in Kafka-esque terms, everybody's a bug, squashed by circumstance, luck, even love.

NYTimes D+
(Charles Isherwood) the play is more blunt than barbed on this subject. The inevitable Jeremy Piven mercury-poisoning allusion earns a big, easy laugh, but Ms. Rebeck hasn’t bothered actually to write a joke about the kerfuffle. And the play’s mechanics aren’t particularly fine-tuned, as one or another character wanders offstage to go to the bathroom or take phone calls, conveniently allowing Roxanne and Harry to hash out their history, or Harry and Jake to spar over line readings. The Understudy is an unstable mixture of satire, sentimental comedy and a smidgen of farce. (An unseen crew member, befogged by smoking pot, keeps pushing the wrong buttons and scooting the wrong sets onstage.) Perhaps not surprisingly, the director, Scott Ellis, cannot seem to blend the styles very smoothly.

ShowShowDown D
(Patrick Lee) Although slight and weakly dependent on contrivances (you'll nearly use up fingers counting how many times the characters forget that their "private" conversations are being heard over the loudspeaker) this backstage comedy has the potential to be more diverting and fun than this production allows. The premise is tasty - we're at a put-in rehearsal where a legit actor has been hired to understudy a movie star - and there are fun if predictable barbs at how today's celeb-crazed culture has trickled down to the theatre biz. But the production is a non-starter with the actors steered toward choices that slow the show to a crawl.

NYpost D-
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) The proceedings keep hitting contrived snags, the biggest being Harry and Roxanne's joint baggage -- he dumped her right before their wedding. The real issue, though, is that Roxanne seems to be written for a younger actress. White has no chemistry with either man. Amid forced entrances and exits -- staged in a needlessly frantic manner by director Scott Ellis -- everybody complains, grandstands, agitates, throws fits. The theater, Rebeck seems to say, is one crazy place. And she says it over and over again.

Village Voice D-
(Michael Feingold) Rebeck, far from creating her own world, dresses her nonsense up so that it seems to take place in this one, while slipping in such absurdities that you wonder what planet she's living on. Maybe on Mars, Broadway has understudy rehearsals like the one in The Understudy ...White works awfully hard to garner the play's meager laughs; she sounds, at times, understandably, like a woman trying to lift a 10-ton truck. Kirk's irritating mannerisms fit his irritating character handily; Gosselaar, stuck with the "feed" role, fills it amiably with charm and good looks.

TB A 13; LSA A 13; NYM A- 12; TNY A- 12; WSJ A- 12; BS A- 12; TM B+ 11; NY1 B+ 11; EW B 10; V B- 9; AP B- 9; HR C+ 8 OOB C+ 8; ND C- 6; NYDN C- 6; NYT D+ 5; SSD D 4; NYP D- 3; VV D- 3; TOTAL: 166 /19=8.73 (B-)

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