The New Year ushered in the Boston premiere of Theresa Rebeck’s The Understudy at the Lyric Stage. A presence in the city for more than thirty years, the Lyric Stage has been under the leadership of artistic director Spiro Veloudos since 1997. A 240 seat space with a thrust stage, the Lyric is located on the second floor of a YMCA in Boston’s Back Bay
The Lyric makes it a point to cast local professional actors, keep ticket prices moderate (which can mean low production values), and draw its repertory mainly from contemporary American drama and musicals, with the occasional bow to British works such as its memorable production of Caryl Churchill’s A Number.
Rebeck’s Understudy – first produced in 2008 – joins a long line of metatheatrical comedies that deal with actors’ ambitions, egos, and tribulations. An attractive play for a small professional company working on a low budget, it has only three characters; makes few scenic demands; is 90 minutes long, thus appealing to the supposed brief attention span of today’s audiences, while simultaneously offering them an intellectual frisson.
Franz Kafka’s spirit pervades the plot, mood, and, to an extent, characters. The play’s action revolves around a rehearsal of an imaginary newly discovered work by Kafka. Based on the scenes we see, the play-within-a-play combines elements of The Trial and The Castle. Thus, much of the humor is derived from the audience’s ability to identify the material, although no great depth of knowledge is required to “get it.”
The three characters consist of two men, Harry, the understudy and Jake, a newly hatched action film hero; the woman is Roxanne, the stage manager, who, six years earlier, had been engaged to and then deserted by the understudy. Their coincidental meeting at the rehearsal is one of several artifices. Contrived exits and entrances are another.
In Kafkaesque fashion, there is an unseen and unheard power who arbitrarily controls the protagonist’s fate. Bruce, the offstage movie superstar, has the bigger lead in the Kafka play. Jake, who swaggers about demeaning Harry, is Bruce’s understudy, in addition to playing the second lead. In theory, if Bruce left the play, Jake would take over his part, while Harry would take over Jake’s. In actuality, Bruce grabs a movie role that Jake covets and the play closes down because the real box office draw is gone. All three characters are left jobless and adrift. The play ends bewilderingly with the three characters dancing.
The Understudy deals with Kafka’s recurring themes: status, humiliation, anxiety, and powerlessness. But they are vitiated by the play’s satirical approach. Although clever, The Understudy does not deliver the wallop the author likely intended. Where Kafka created archetypes, Rebeck’s characters are theatrical stereotypes.
Although Larry Coen’s production got off to an awkward and slow start, the pacing picked up. Laura Latreille gave a one-note angry portrayal, but then the actress was not greatly aided by the playwright. As Harry, Christopher James Webb came most alive during the rehearsal scenes of Kafka’s play. Kelby T. Akin’s characterization grew during the performance.
By Theresa Rebeck
A Production of the Lyric Stage, Boston
Directed by Larry Coen
Scenic Design by Christina Todesco
Costume Design by Emily Woods Hogue
Sound design and Music by Arshan Gailus
Lighting Design by Frank Meissner, Jr.