The Understudy, a new play by Theresa Rebeck having its premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, is very well performed, slightly over-produced and still trying to figure itself out as a play.
Harry (Reg Rogers) is about to have his first understudy rehearsal for a Broadway production of a play by Kafka. A great set-up that gets better with many repeated variations on Kafka as playwright and especially as Broadway audience magnet. He soon meets and does ego battle with Jake (Bradley Cooper), an action film star who is awaiting news from Paramount about his next possible million dollar-plus contract at the same time as he, Jake, is moving up to the role in the Kafka production currently being played by the unseen Bruce, a 10-carat film star who never works for less than $22 million. And their rehearsal is run by Roxanne (Kristen Johnston), a stage manager who had previously been engaged to Harry. There would seem to be a great deal of plot here, but Rebeck doesnít dwell on plot as anything but the vehicle for generating character collisions.
The 90-minute intermissionless play really moves for the first 55-60 minutes. But then, with the actors doing their very best and generating the energy and ensemble chemistry that makes this among the best acted and directed productions Iíve seen in the past ten years in the Berkshires, the writing shifts tone and focus and, as it does, the play begins to wheeze where previously it had been firing along very happily.
Premiere productions are a huge challenge for any writer to cope with, and Iíd say that Rebeck is well past the halfway mark to making a series of sketches into a whole play. And satire is also the most difficult style to solve and resolve. The occasional personal insight can work, but by the final 15-20 minutes, it seemed that the writer hadnít decided whether she cared more for the theatre-driven references and wonderfully sad truths of the profession or the charactersí personal problems. For what it may be worth, I found the theatre references and the realities of seeking approval and dignity within the profession to be both honest and engaging.
Most satires do not have an ending that satisfies whatever has preceded them. So, too, The Understudy ends with a fanciful image of the three actors united as a spirited trio. But it is an image that, for now at least, doesnít derive from the play that precedes it. I will be fascinated to see if, as she develops the play further, Rebeck retains this final image and justifies it.