Arts & Entertainment
A love letter and a workplace comedy
By Martin F. Kohn
Originally printed 5/31/2012 (Issue 2022 - Between The Lines News)
Every backstage play ends up being a love letter to theater. It can also be something else, probably should be if it knows what's good for it - a romance, say, or a workplace comedy, but any play that's set in a theater and whose characters are actors and/or people who work with actors will ultimately pat itself on the back for being what it is. And audiences who love theater will pat themselves on the back for appreciating such offerings.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. It's a tradition that has given us "Kiss Me, Kate," "Noises Off," "The Dresser," "A Life in the Theatre," "A Chorus Line" and the TV show "Smash."
Hold that thought. "The Understudy," a bittersweet workplace comedy now brightening the stage at Williamston Theatre, is by Theresa Rebeck, a prolific playwright and screenwriter and the creator of "Smash." "The Understudy," with only three characters (and no songs), has a few things in common with the well-populated TV series, chief among them: dueling divas.
In this case, the dueling divas are men. Harry, the understudy (Tony Caselli), is a serious actor seriously jealous of much taller Jake (Drew Parker), a second-rate action-movie star who is the second lead in a Broadway play that appears to be based on every novel Franz Kafka ever wrote. And while it's only the third character, stage manager Roxanne (Michelle Held), who enters with a suitcase on wheels, everyone arrives with a considerable amount of baggage.
Harry, played by Caselli with a touching air of disappointment, may be jealous of Jake, but Jake is jealous of the never-seen big-time movie star in the play. And, for all his Hollywood bravado, nicely embodied by Parker, Jake is envious of Harry's talent after they rehearse together.
Roxanne, who turned to stage managing when her acting career faltered, is jealous of both actors, and in torrents whose intensity Held varies well, turns her frustration into rage against her unseen assistant up in the lighting booth. She also manages to hold a cell phone threateningly, as if it were hand grenade. Oh, and Harry and Roxanne clearly have a history, beautifully conveyed upon first meeting by Caselli and Held with ice water voices and a physical discomfort that makes you hope there's a masseuse in the house.
This may not sound like a love letter to theater, but stay with it. Rebeck's script sometimes wanders, but Rob Roznowski's staging remains sharply delineated. We always know who these people are, even if they sometimes don't.
Williamston Theatre, 122 S. Putnam St., Williamston. Thursday-Sunday through June 17. 105 minutes. $20-25. 517-655-7469. http://www.williamstontheatre.org
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