AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Theresa Rebeck
Presented by San Jose Repertory Theatre
Directed by Amy Glazer
San Jose Repertory Theatre
101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose, CA / (408) 367-7255

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Anyone who has ever doubted that show business is indeed a business needs to see "The Understudy," in which playwright Theresa Rebeck reveals some of the machinations that occur behind the scenes and the way that money is the bottom line.

Annie Smart's set design for the San Jose Repertory Theatre production immediately establishes the venue with a proscenium plus a fire curtain, ghost light on one side and a table and chair on the other. Later the curtain rises to reveal the revolving set for a play.

The premise is this: An actor, Harry (Gabriel Marin), has been hired as an understudy to Jake (Craig Marker) in an ongoing Broadway production of a newly discovered script by Franz Kafka. Though often unemployed, Harry considers himself a "real" actor and thinks that Jake is a lesser artist because Jake is a movie actor who has mainly been cast in action thrillers that don't require "real" acting. As Harry puts it, Jake's main line is "Get in the truck!"

Harry reports for a rehearsal with Jake, who's also the standby for the show's star, a big name movie actor. The stage manager, Roxanne (Jessica Wortham), is to supervise them. To say that the rehearsal doesn't go well is an understatement.

Harry and Roxanne were engaged six years ago, but Harry took off with no warning or explanation, leaving Roxanne hurt and angry. Then Harry tries to reinterpret some lines, which is contrary to a policy that once a show is up and running, everyone sticks to what the director wanted. One of the stage manager's duties is to make sure the director's vision is maintained.

Then there's a problem with the unseen, recalcitrant, stoned woman in the control booth, She either fails to do as she's told or does the wrong thing. In the meantime, Jake takes calls from his agent, who's trying to get him a big part in another movie.

All of this unfurls in about 100 minutes without intermission. Much of it had the audience laughing a lot, but there are some flaws. One is that the playwright and director Amy Glazer give Roxanne a relatively narrow emotional range that goes from uptight to angry to hysterical. Marin's Harry comes across as a bit of a mensch and probably a heel for his past treatment of Roxanne. Consequently, Marker makes Jake the most likable character. Sure, Jake's not the brightest or greatest actor, but he seems genuine because of the way Marker connects with the other two actors and the way he deals with Jake's hopes and disappointments.

The script has some obvious devices, mainly when one character or another happens to go backstage, leaving the other two to converse. Of course, the person who's backstage hears everything because the loudspeakers are on.

Besides Smart's set, the production is enhanced by Fumiko Bielefeldt's costumes, Daniel Meeker's lighting and Steve Schoenbeck's sound. Dave Meier served as fight coordinator, while Amanda Folena was the movement consultant.

The latter's expertise is seen at the end, when the three characters join in a graceful dance that helps to relieve the tensions they have experienced.

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