The Understudy: Kafkaesque comedy opens Everyman Theatre season

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Danny Gavigan, Beth Hylton and Clinton Brandhagen in The Understudy.  (credit Stan Barouh)

Franz Kafka once famously said, “In the fight between you and the world, back the world.”

Simple but painfully sound advice for the struggling stage pros in The Understudy, the current production at Everyman Theatre.

Seamlessly directed by Joseph W. Ritsch, The Understudy takes an acerbic look at the real world problems of three theater professionals rehearsing a Broadway show. Of course, only in show business would such problems include one actor admitting that he had to change his name to get a job, while another complains that he merely makes 2.9 million per picture in Hollywood.

Playwright Theresa Rebeck, the creator of television’s Smash, mined her own memories of frustrations in the theater when she fashioned The Understudy. But in telling her tale with a Kafkaesque twist, Redbeck cleverly nails the byzantine vagaries of life on the stage.

Harry and Jake (Clinton Brandhagen and Danny Gavigan) come to terms with Franz Kafka. (Stan Barouh)
Harry and Jake (Clinton Brandhagen and Danny Gavigan) finally come to terms with Franz Kafka. (Stan Barouh)

All of the action takes place in an empty theater early one Saturday morning.

Harry, a journeyman actor has arrived to understudy Jake – a supporting player in an allegedly newly discovered Franz Kafka play. After a bitter, fourth-wall breaking monologue where he trashes Jake’s latest action movie role, Harry disappears upon Jake’s arrival; allowing the latter to wax on in his own biting soliloquy. Jake is interrupted by Roxanne, the stage manager tasked with over-seeing this singular run-through. Sparks fly when it is discovered that two of the players have a shared past, but the trio soldiers on; each hoping to somehow survive their increasingly surreal shared circumstances.

The storyline also includes two unseen players; one a major star named Bruce who is both revered and reviled, and a tech booth operator named Lauren whose scenery-switching antics reminded this critic of the hijinks in the classic Warner Brothers cartoon Duck Amuck.

Redbeck’s dialogue is peppered with dark comedic lines and lots of insider jokes.

At one point, Harry incredulously asks Roxanne, “Who would steal an Equity card? A SAG card perhaps…” And when Jake asks Harry, “Did you get a chance to look over the script?” Harry offhandedly replies, “Yeah; well, when I was memorizing the lines.”

Later, when Harry protests one of Roxanne’s dictates by saying, “I think I’m well within my rights.” Roxanne shoots back, “You’re an actor. You have no rights.”

Roxanne (Beth Hylton) and Jake (Danny Gavigan) re-write a scene. (courtesy)
Roxanne (Beth Hylton) and Jake (Danny Gavigan) re-write a scene.  (Stan Barouh)

Much of The Understudy is played for laughs and each character clearly has a heart, though all are scarred. And in rehearsing the story within the story, even love is buffeted by the wind.

The most Kafkaesque observation? You can choose what you want, but what you want is not your choice.

Director Ritsch cast three Everyman stock players for this well-paced production and the trio are in a word terrific.

Clinton Brandhagen, who has the put-upon character down pat, plays Harry with equal amounts of vanity and vexation. Brandhagen makes you want to pull for the understudy even though it is patently clear Harry is his own worst enemy. This sort of role spotlights Brandhagen at his best.

As the stage manager Roxanne, Beth Hylton alternately conveys a tender and tenacious spirit; giving likeable layers to a character who could easily become one-dimensional.

Danny Gavigan maintains a cool demeanor as the stalled action-movie star Jake, allowing each setback to reveal yet another fracture to his thin facade. A steady, unpretentious performance.

Danny Gavigan as Jake gives Clinton Brandhagen a shout. (courtesy)
Danny Gavigan as Jake gives Clinton Brandhagen as Harry a shout. (Stan Barouh)

Both the lighting design by Jay Herzog and sound design of Neil McFadden are spot on. Particularly pleasing are the twilight hues Herzog employs for the dance sequence and McFadden’s hilarious echo effects.

Kathleen Geldard’s costume design for the players is simple but effective, especially in clearly painting Harry as the hungry outsider.

A special nod to Scenic Designer Daniel Ettinger. To simply say the scenery is striking would be a gross understatement. Aided by the mischievous hands of the unseen booth technician, the scenery takes on a life of its own; in effect becoming a fourth player in a world Franz Kafka might well have imagined.

At some points, The Understudy may feel like situation comedy, but that is to be expected given the playwright’s experience in television. Even so, this production is  thoroughly enjoyable and makes for a refreshing evening of zestful entertainment. But be forewarned: this play is indeed very Kafkaesque. As Jake observes, “It helps to have a glimpse of Kafka” though like Harry, you might rejoin, “Well, I have been to Prague on a pub crawl.”


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Everyman Theatre’s production of The Understudy runs from now – Sept 28. Running Time: approximately 95 minutes with no intermission. The theater is located at 315 W. Fayette St., Baltimore, Maryland. Tickets and other information may be found by visiting Everyman online.