There’s nothing performers love more than recounting their disasters (at the time painful, but later, absolutely hilarious. What’s the formula? Tragedy plus time equals comedy?) I can remember a lovely piece of choreography which was supposed to land me elegantly on a piano. I kept going off the other side! Or the crucial time the messenger in Ionesco’s THE CHAIRS locked himself out of the theater when he popped out for a smoke. The adlibbing was legendary. See what I mean? These delightful memories were triggered by Theresa Rebeck’s THE UNDERSTUDY (at the Lyric Stage Co. through Jan. 29th).
Rebeck memorializes missed cues and mangled communications by conjuring a fraught rehearsal for a new understudy (Christopher James Webb) with little respect for the movie star (Kelby T. Akin) he’s covering. The frazzled stage manager (Laura Latreille) can barely keep the session together. Rebeck knows the business inside and out having started in theater, migrated to motion pictures and maintained her stage credentials in wild, lacerating comedies. She gets back at nasty producers, spineless directors and obtuse movie people with a slash of her pen. In THE UNDERSTUDY she melds Hollywood and Broadway to Kafka (yes, Kafka), creating a random (well, ‘Kafkaesque’) world with little or no concern for ‘art.’ As Dorothy Parker famously said, “fresh hell” awaits the actors attempting to animate Kafka.
Director Larry Coen sees ‘farce’ written all over the script so from the get-go we’re treated to high strings and taut emotions – leaving almost no room for the more serious side of the proceedings. Who can say…maybe there isn’t a serious message lurking in THE UNDERSTUDY. (Although Webb and Akin manage to let down their comedic guard when the artistic going gets tough and we feel their crushing disappointment.)
Both Mamet and Durang have crafted ‘on stage’ disaster comedies but Rebeck gets closer to the bone with topical references to recent Broadway dust-ups like Jeremy Piven’s sudden exit via mercury poisoning (prompting Mamet to suggest his next role could be a thermometer). I’ll bet there’s even more payback in THE UNDERSTUDY than we’re aware of.