The Understudy at Everyman Theatre begins as a seemingly simplistic comedy about the trials of being an underpaid and underused actor, but as the play continues, comedy becomes a lesson in profound, stark truths. Written by Theresa Rebeck and directed by Joseph W. Ritsch, The Understudy delves into relationships between people and people’s relationship with their art.
The three-person cast has wonderful chemistry that brings an immediate comfort to the audience – we are watching an intimate exchange, but the actors effortlessly let us in. Clinton Brandhagen is Harry, the struggling actor who is hired to be the understudy for Jake (played by Danny Gavigan) an action movie star with an opening movie weekend netting almost $70 million. Roxanne (played by Beth Hylton) is the stage manager in charge of directing the understudy rehearsal. The play within the play that they are rehearsing is supposed to be a long lost Franz Kafka story based on parts of his well-known works Metamorphosis, The Trial and The Castle.
Harry is first to take the stage to inform the audience his dismay about being an understudy to Jake, who is “not a real actor” because his movie lines consist of “Get in the truck!” to escape an on-coming tornado. Jake enters looking streamlined in a black, tight t-shirt, black jeans and sunglasses. He is ready to rehearse his other part as the understudy to the more famous movie star in the lead. Jake is at ease on stage and certain that his way of playing his character is the best way. He is initially annoyed with Harry’s suggestions, thinking his choices better because of his popularity at the box office. When Roxanne enters, there is instant, unexplained tension between her and Harry. As the play unfolds, it is revealed that Harry left Roxanne at the alter, and Roxanne is not over the jilt.
Hylton’s Roxanne is at her best when she is either yelling at the unseen and underperforming sound and light board operator, Laura, or trying to mask her hostilely toward Harry – which is much of the play. Brandhagen is excellent as the clueless, self-pitying Harry, and Gavigan as Jake is flawless, balancing his movie star ego and brashness against his deeper insecurities concerning his talent and his worth.
The three-person cast has wonderful chemistry that brings an immediate comfort to the audience…
The sets, designed by Daniel Ettinger, are just what one would expect for an over-the-top production of Kafka on Broadway: a tall fireplace chimney stacked high with human skulls, a room with the backdrop of file cabinets as far as the eye can see and a large picture window with a castle in the distance with gloomy clouds floating by. Each new set, arriving at the wrong times – thanks to a probably stoned Laura – carried with it hearty laughs from the audience.
The Understudy does journey through some serious themes, but Everyman’s production delivers enough laughs and enjoyment watching these exceptionally talented actors work through their characters’ issues that it is totally worth the trip.
Advisory: Adult language.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.
The Understudy runs through September 28, 2014 at Everyman Theatre, 315 West Fayette Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. For tickets call 410.752.2208 or click here.