You don’t have to know about Kafka to enjoy Crescent Stage’s production of The Understudy. You don’t even really have to give a crap about actors or the challenges they face in the theater world. Theresa Rebeck’s 2007 backstage comedy revolves around three well-developed characters that you’ll grow to care about regardless.
Set on a dark, sparse stage, The Understudy takes place during rehearsals for a hot new Broadway show. In attendance are no-nonsense, foul-mouthed stage manager Roxanne (Katie Huard) and cocky movie star Jack (Paul Rolfes), who’s the understudy of an even bigger movie star named Bruce (who never makes an appearance). And then there’s Harry (Jamie Smithson), the uppity understudy of the understudy who seemingly got the job because he knows the director’s wife’s hairstylist’s friend … or something like that.
As they work through the rehearsal of the play, a recently rediscovered Franz Kafka piece, the trio wavers between frustration, scorn, hatred, and eventually respect and affection for each other. Themes of Kafka’s work parallel their own actions and developments as they ponder the meaning of their lives and what they do. The proceedings are complicated by a stoner light board operator with a tendency to disappear at pivotal moments.
Roxanne was once an actress herself who now babysits asshole actors. When Harry arrives on set for his first day of rehearsals, it’s clear that the two have a rocky history together that adds a healthy dose of drama to their new work relationship. Though she holds it together for most of the play, an emotional monologue later on takes the proceedings to another level.
Harry is a passionate, thoughtful actor with an unimpressive resume. He begins with an obnoxiously pompous speech, but he reveals a more earnest, vulnerable side as the play progresses. Smithson manages to make this irritating character likable partially due to the comical rapport he keeps with the audience when the other characters leave the stage. A scene in which he workshops the various ways to comically take a shot of liquor is one of the funniest in the play.
Harry is initially both jealous and disdainful of Jake, who recently starred in a cheesy action-adventure blockbuster. With his rugged good looks, Rolfes is a good fit for Jake, a star with his own set of insecurities. Though he’s raking in millions, he’s ready for more serious challenges as well as an end to showbiz bullshit.
It’s clear that the Crescent Stage crew enjoys working together. With a small but strong track record, these College of Charleston faculty members and alumni have a chemistry you won’t find in most thrown-together productions. Director Paul Whitty even choked up when introducing the show, moved by the talent and enthusiasm of his colleagues. With its ruminations on life in the theater world, it certainly hits close to home for the actors. And with underlying themes exploring relationships, success, and accessible existentialism, it should be a hit with audiences as well.