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"The Understudy" at Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre
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"The Understudy" at Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre

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Roundabout Theatre Company
Todd Haimes, Artistic Director

The Understudy

By Theresa Rebeck
Directed by Scott Ellis

Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre/
The Laura Pels Theatre
111 West 46th Street
New York, NY

Justin Kirk
Mark-Paul Gosselaar
Julie White

Set Design: Alexander Dodge
Costume Design: Tom Broecker
Lighting Design: Kenneth Posner
Original Music & Sound Design: Obadiah Eaves
Press: Boneau/Bryan-Brown
Production Stage Manager: David H. Lurie
Casting: Carrie Gardner, CSA
Production Manager: Kai Brothers
General Manager: Rachel E. Ayers
Director of Marketing & Sales Promotion: David B. Steffen
Founding Director: Gene Feist
Associate Artistic Director: Scott Ellis

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
November 11, 2009

Theresa Rebeck has created a new play for Roundabout Theatre Company that revolves around the current practice of recruiting film stars as Broadway stars, to fill seats and bloat the box office. Justin Kirk is Harry, a new understudy in a rare Kafka play, for a role filled by Jake (Mark Paul Gosselaar), who’s a $2 million per film movie star, a B grade actor, whom Harry would like to eliminate, in more ways than one. Julie White, as Roxanne, the Kafka play’s stage manager, is having an affair with Jake and had also been Harry’s jilted fiancée, what a coincidence. Let the games begin.

The Understudy opens with Harry’s monologue, his resentment at being seen as lesser theatrical talent than Jake, who behaves on and offstage as a street thug. The theme within the theme, of movie stars enlarging their fame, between films, with high profile Broadway roles, is a true-to-life, au courant scenario. Last season, Katie Holmes starred in All My Sons, and this season, James Gandolfini and Jeff Daniels join the God of Carnage ensemble, while Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman light the marquee for A Steady Rain.

The play within a play, by Kafka, briefly comes to life in the second portion of Ms. Rebeck’s play, and that, for me, was today’s highlight, with some eerie scenery, lighting, and sound effects. However, all prior backstage action seems strained and inconceivable. More to the point, there seems little physical or mature connection between Harry and Roxanne, and their breakup-makeup-fight-love scenes seem all Roxanne and no Harry. In contrast, Roxanne and Jake seem more credibly suited, as Roxanne had something to offer Jake’s career, and Jake had something to offer Roxanne’s love life. Their story was as old as Kafka’s play.

What was most irritating was Ms. White’s shrillness. What is it about so many new plays that “shrill” is the new “strong”? The only time Ms. White wasn’t over-emoting, with taut, piercing venom, was when she was kissing or offstage. Alexander Dodge assembled some fine sets for the Kafka segment, and Kenneth Posner’s lighting was nuanced for backstage-offstage scenes. Scott Ellis directed Ms. Rebeck’s play as probably noted in the script, but I would have liked to see a different Roxanne, less shrill, with nuanced charisma. A final character was offstage, an imaginary, druggy, light-sound stagehand, who kept losing place in the understudy rehearsals. That extra element actually added a thankful bit of humor.

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For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at