Theresa Rebeck has made a name for herself with her rich and engaging characters on stage and most recently with her look into the underbelly of theater with her hit TV show, "Smash". And along those lines her play "The Understudy" currently playing at Seattle Public Theater manages a fun and illuminating look into show business as well. And while the play doesn't always have the most original concepts out there, this production manages some finely layered performances from its ensemble cast.
We enter a theater in New York where Harry (John Ulman), a down on his luck actor, has gotten cast as the understudy for a hot new Kafka play starring two Hollywood action heroes. But as soon as Harry arrives he not only runs into his former fiancé Roxanne (Brenda Joyner), who is also the stage manager of the show, but also begins to see that there's more to his co-star Jake (Mike Dooly) than just bullets, explosions and screaming "get in the truck!" As the play progresses all three venture well beyond their archetypes and find a new found respect for the others.
Director Kelly Kitchens has done a fine job at not only keeping the characters from falling into stereotypes but also keeping the pacing of the play clipping along. And her seamless interweaving of the world of the rehearsals to the world of the play is wonderful. But it's the superb ensemble that has to keep it going. Joyner as the harried stage manager trying to keep all the balls in the air while dealing with her own personal life backing up on her is amazing. Ulman as the "serious actor" shows off some magnificent levels as he traverses the arc from feeling he knows it all to realizing he knows very little. But I have to say it was Dooly who completely shines in the play. His swaggering Hollywood dude is replete with layer upon layer of intelligence, angst and insecurity. And his incredible stage presence and confidence in the role makes it impossible to look away. I have to say, I've seen him in many supporting roles over the years and been impressed but it's great to see him be able to sink his teeth into something richer and completely walk off with it.
The stark overtones mixed with hilarious practicality of the set and lights are a complete success from designer Richard Schaefer. And when combined with the excellent sound design from Dustin Morache, they practically become a fourth character of the show.
So the show itself isn't going to cure cancer. In fact the ending left me a little cold. But all in all it's a highly entertaining piece complete with some great moments and some truly brilliant performances. And whether they're rescuing people from tornados, examining a bleak Kafka-esque regime or taking an inside look at show business and its inherent insecurities, that's all we really want from shows and movies ... to be entertained.
"The Understudy" performs at Seattle Public Theater through February 17th. For tickets or information contact the SPT box office at 206-524-1300 or visit them online at www.seattlepublictheater.org.
Photo credit: Paul Bestock