Theresa Rebeck’s one-act play The Understudy, which opened Jan. 18 for a three-week run at Oregon Contemporary Theatre, appears on the surface to offer a serious reflection on the absurdity of life, the impossibility of love and the inescapable corruption of American theater by the cult of celebrity.
Take the show on that level, though, and you’re bound to be disappointed. Yes, the play, directed by John Schmor, trots out Kafka for an illusion of depth, but you’ll have a better time of it if you see this show as a wonderful descendant of French farce and even slapstick.
In Rebeck’s backstage story, the crisply repressed stage manager Roxanne (portrayed with energetic exasperation by Inga R. Wilson) is trying to hold together a mid-run rehearsal for a new understudy in the wildly popular Broadway production of a previously undiscovered absurdist drama by Franz Kafka — he of insects and judges.
Kafka selling out whole houses on Broadway? If that doesn’t tip you to the fact we’ve left the realm of perfect believability, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.
Things fall apart when a new understudy, Harry (played wonderfully as a Woody Allen schlemiel by Tom Wilson), proves to be the guy who abandoned Roxanne at the altar six years before and hasn’t communicated with her since. Yes, he admits, they have history.
As The Understudy opens on a spare and dark backstage set by Jeffrey Cook, Harry is not bitter — no, not at all — about the fact that Jake (Andrew Beck), an overpaid, handsomely charismatic action-flick movie star, is adding artistic cred to his resume by getting a lead role in a legit Broadway show.
Finding a prop gun that’s to be used in the rehearsal, Harry endlessly mocks Jake’s best-known line — “Get in the truck!” — from his most recent insipid film, which earned Jake millions of dollars.
Finally, as the fractured rehearsal grinds on, stumbling hilariously over the unseen but clearly stoned tech director’s miscues, Harry and Jake nearly come to blows — over professional jealousy, over Harry’s attempts to take control of the staging, even over their sudden mutual romantic interest in Roxanne.
When The Understudy opened off Broadway 10 years ago, reviews carped about the lack of credibility of Rebeck’s script. How would an empty cinematic mannequin like Jake ever be cast on Broadway? How could a story about Kafka ever sell enough seats? So many scenes depend on the conceit of onstage voices being captured and broadcast in backstage dressing rooms!
All those complaints so miss the point.
The play — at its most serious, a study in absurdity and human alienation — is a zany frolic that winds up in a transcendent moment that left me happily stunned. I won’t give it away here, except to say that the resolution is hinted at in the last verse of Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach,” whose “darkling plain” is alluded to repeatedly in the script.
The Understudy continues through Feb. 3 at Oregon Contemporary Theatre; more info at OCTheatre.org.