Watching Gavin Hoffman’s antic, pacing, begging, whining, very funny stand-up comedy routine of an opening scene in Theresa Rebeck’s comedy The Understudy at Artists Repertory Theatre on Saturday night, I got to thinking of vehicles. Not Fords or Bentleys or Priuses, but theatrical vehicles, the sort of plays that used to get written to showcase the talents of the Gertrude Lawrences and Katherine Cornells and Lunt & Fontannes of the world.
The thing about that opening scene is, not just any Tom, Dick, or George Spelvin could pull it off. It’s a bravura turn, and a dangerous one: the fate of the entire show hangs on it. If the actor aces it, the show has the audience in the palm of its hand. If he blows it, the whole performance is down the tubes already. You won’t get the audience back.
Hoffman aces it, and for the rest of the evening, all is well. But it also makes clear that The Understudy is a brittle play, an unforgiving one, relying to an unusual degree on the skills of its performers to work. If any of the three actors aren’t up to it, the seams will start to show. At Artists Rep, all three are up to it, shifting and accelerating pretty much effortlessly under Michael Mendelson’s smooth and swiftly paced direction, and the evening bubbles along on a light sea of laughter, affection, and appreciation for the acting art.
As literary craft, though, Rebeck’s comedy seems a little slapdash. In an odd way, it’s all performance art, the old-fashioned kind, passing the ball deftly from one bravura turn to the next, without ever deepening much or getting to a particular point. Themes are begun and left undeveloped: the lack of women’s roles in the theater, the chasm between Hollywood and the stage (or “art” and “entertainment”), the relationship between irresponsibility and the arts, the nature of self-obsession and betrayal, even that good old-fashioned movie staple “why don’t those crazy kids just kiss and make up?”. Whether we’re supposed to take seriously the undiscovered masterpiece by Kafka that’s being rehearsed, or disregard it as a campy joke as the actors stretch it to ridiculous effect, doesn’t come clear. And we never do get a clue to why, six long years earlier, Harry dumped Roxanne without a word and left her stranded practically at the altar. The play flirts with meanings, and then steps back.
But looked at from another angle – as a well-crafted vehicle for three actors to show off their skills – The Understudy’s a rip-roaring success. In this production Hoffman remains the main attraction (a bit ironically, as he’s playing Harry, the understudy of the title who’s being rehearsed only in case the action-movie star who’s slumming on Broadway skedaddles back to Hollywood) but his companions – Ayanna Berkshire as Roxanne, the stage manager who naturally has a few issues with the new understudy; and Jared Q. Miller as Jake, the minor movie star who prompts Harry’s resentment and contempt – have plenty of space to show off their own chops. Rebeck has created a showcase for the actors, and sometimes that’s enough.
Berkshire – last seen at Artists Rep giving a lovely, steely-delicate performance as the seamstress Esther in Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel, also directed by Mendelson – gets to pull out pretty much all the stops on exasperation as Roxanne, who since Harry walked out on her has given up her promising career as an actor to become a stage manager, which in Roxanne’s mind means mostly cleaning up the messes that actors, stagehands, producers, and other non-grownups make. (Somehow, Roxanne’s career shift is also Harry’s fault, at least in her mind. This makes little sense, but emotionally, Berkshire makes it stick.) The stage manager’s lot is symbolic, maybe, of the position Harry put her in when he disappeared: she was the one who had to grow up and move along. And Berkshire’s shift, late in this long one-act, from harried stage manager to actor straddling the line between performance and reality is a little bit of stage magic.
Miller, meanwhile, moves slyly and charmingly from brainless movie hunk to serious stage actor to incipiently sensitive guy as Jake, whose effects-heavy action flick has just pulled in $67 million in opening-weekend box office, and who’s starring in this “prestige” Broadway show to keep in the public eye while he’s waiting for a really big Hollywood offer. Jake’s a bit of a tweener: he makes $2.2 million a movie, impressive to the perpetually bankrupt Harry but small potatoes compared to the play’s big BIG star, Bruce, who pulls in ten times that much. (We never see the coyly named Bruce, but we hear about him a lot: he’s both the jackpot and the snake in the garden, the symbol of the Hollywood corruption of the legit-stage Garden of Eden.)
And Miller makes the case, almost imperceptibly, for Jake’s savvy if not his native intelligence, and for Hollywood as something different from Broadway: a medium in which visual magnetism matters, and where a line like “Get in the truck!,” delivered with the proper urgency and visceral impact, is worthy of a fat paycheck.
Which brings us back to vehicles. Yes, The Understudy might be one. But Artists Rep drives it home.
The Understudy continues through Oct. 4 at Artists Rep. Schedule and ticket information are here.