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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Theatre review: The Understudy is unfocused

This “industry” comedy gets bogged down by too many ideas

The celebrity name on a Broadway theatre marquee has always been a big draw for audiences. With names like Jeff Daniels, Jake Gyllenhaal, Marisa Tomei, and Mary-Louise Parker currently on, or about to grace, a Broadway stage, the buzz these instantly recognizable names create is often viewed as box-office gold.

This idea of celebrity casting for the stage is one of the many themes explored inside Theresa Rebeck’s rather lightweight and unfocused comedy The Understudy, currently playing at the PAL Studio Stage in Vancouver.

For the record though, this production does not include any real Hollywood A-listers, although ironically enough, past productions have included Bradley Cooper, Kristen Johnson, and Julie White.

In Rebeck’s comedy, “working” actor Harry has been cast as the understudy to Hollywood action star Jake in a Broadway production of a newly discovered play by Franz Kafka. While Jake’s latest action film just raked in millions on its opening weekend, he considers himself a “bottom-basement movie star”, commanding a mere $2.3 million per film. Appearing in the Broadway play opposite another movie star who makes ten times as much for each of his movies, strangely enough, Jake is also expected to understudy the role of his bigger co-star.

Meeting for the first time on stage, the two men begin rehearsing their respective understudy roles with the assistance of the usually unflappable stage manager Roxanne, who also just happens to have a romantic history with Harry.

Throw in an unseen lighting and sound operator who is never on the same page as the scene being rehearsed, subtle meta-references to the Kafkaesque nature of Rebeck’s play itself, a few curious monologues, a little satire on the state of the entertainment industry, and it is easy to see how Rebeck’s fractured script becomes unfocused.

Rarely giving us an opportunity to explore any of the themes presented in any real depth, when coupled with the relatively low stakes driving her play, we are ultimately not invested in its inevitable conclusion.

That isn’t to say there are not some fully realized moments inside Rebeck’s play, but they are regularly interrupted. Forcing us to refocus each time, Rebeck exacerbates things as the three wander offstage on a regular basis, allowing the remaining characters to interact separately. Conveniently, these conversations are all overheard by the absent character via the backstage speakers.

Given how much Rebeck crams into this relatively short 90-minutes it is then up to its trio of actors to make sense of it all.

Usually performed without intermission, in this production director Mel Tuck gives his actors a break mid-way through. It turns out to be somewhat of a blessing, as the trio of Michael Germant, Drew Henderson, and Sarah Boes all find firmer footing and are more relaxed in the play’s second half.

Despite a shaky first half, Germant is particularly watchable as Harry, with an endearing every-man attitude with a slight edge just below the surface. Henderson makes for a believable Hollywood star, thankfully refusing to be pulled under by caricature. As Roxanne, Boes goes a little more neurotic than necessary but has one of the best scenes of the night as she and Henderson talk of how Kafka’s play would be far superior had it included some much-needed estrogen.

While there are a few scattered moments of clarity and hilarity provided by the cast in The Understudy, its biggest challenge comes from a script that doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. Not that we’re bitter or anything.

The Understudy by Theresa Rebeck. Directed by Mel Tuck. An Island Productions presentation on stage at the PAL Studio Theatre (581 Cardero St, Vancouver) until August 10. Visit for tickets and information.

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