The Wilma Theater is one of the city’s best sources of drama, but comedy has historically not been its strong suit. So imagine my delight when I found myself laughing at the Wilma’s local premiere of Theresa Rebeck’s shrewdly satisfying comedy The Understudy. It isn’t exactly wildly funny, but under the attentive eye of David Kennedy, making his directorial debut at the Wilma, the production is at once funny and intellectually stirring.
The play takes place onstage at a rehearsal of a fictional lost Kafka work. (It's not specified, but appears to be a stage adaptation of The Castle.) We only see the play-within-a-play in bits and pieces, but from what we see, the story is vintage Kafka—full of existential absurdity and powerful, shadowy figures.
And it’s opening on Broadway!
If the idea of Kafka opening next to Mamma Mia! and American Idiot isn’t absurd enough, the two-man play has been cast with action-flick stars. (No physical resemblance, but think of one as Will Smith-level, at $20 million per film, and one as more of a Ryan Reynolds, at around $2 million.)
In Understudy, we watch as the less- successful star Jake (Brad Coolidge) rehearses with more-successful Bruce’s beleaguered understudy Harry (Cody Nickell), a stage actor whose paychecks don’t even break the thousands. Stage manager Roxanne (the very funny Jenn Harris), Harry’s jilted fiancee, runs them through how it will go in the unlikely event that Bruce (one of Understudy’s many unseen characters) is unable to perform—in which case Jake will step into the lead and Harry will assume the second-banana role. Also unseen is stoner engineer Laura, making a mess of the scene changes, lighting cues and sound effects.
The humor can be fairly silly and crowd-pleasing—Harry’s bitter sniping about shallow movies, particularly a line from Jake’s latest action flick (“Get in the truck!”), sends the audience into gales of laughter, as theatergoers tend to enjoy few things more than poking fun at movies. But the play doesn’t just coast on it—Kennedy adroitly balances the play’s humor with its serious elements, comfortable being both silly and cerebral without devolving into simple parody.
Coolidge does well with Jake, the play’s least interesting character. At first we see him through Harry’s eyes: a hunk of limited talent and intellect only there to pad his resume. However, in Coolidge’s sensitive portrayal it becomes obvious that Jake has been genuinely bitten by the theater bug. Like any actor, he yearns for a role he can sink his teeth into, and his evolving relationship with Harry gives Understudy a human dimension.
But it’s Nickell’s performance that really stands out. Looking like Charlie Brown on a bad hair day, he’s playing a self-described “bitter” actor. But underneath his frustration, Nickell conveys Harry’s genuine, pure love of the stage. Despite the pain, rejection, disappointment and indignity, he loves acting—even just as understudy for another, better-paid actor. It’s not exactly artistic nirvana, but for all his complaining, Nickell’s performance really captures the joy of an actor practicing his craft.
Andrew Boyce’s scenic design is funny and effective; his set captures the artificial realism of a typical Broadway production that favors spectacle over authenticity—a picture-postcard bar at a cozy European inn, with a huge winding stone stairway leading to a Transylvanian dungeon. Neither is especially realistic, but they’re both spot-on Broadway. Maiko Matsushima’s costumes for Jake and Harry are also good: Coolidge isn’t really better-looking than Nickell (the two are similar in appearance—typical for actor and understudy) but with his tight T-shirt, form-fitting jeans and grey scarf, Coolidge looks positively hunky compared to Nickell, a nebbish dweeb in a brown sweater and saggy brown corduroys.
On the surface, Understudy is a critique of commercial theater, but it’s a jumping-off point to look at the distribution of power in a hierarchical society. The understudy is at the bottom of the totem pole, obviously; then Roxanne, then Jake. Hovering unseen above all three is Bruce, on whose ticket-selling power the production hangs. But the real power is still another level up: Shadowy as Kafka’s faceless bureaucrats, the Broadway producers control the purse strings and Jake’s agent listens from Hollywood as his client begs for a serious role.
It’s easy to empathize with the three characters onstage, as their place near the bottom is where most of us live. Corporations funnel undisclosed amounts of cash into elections and near-anonymous investors in complicated securities hold the mortgages on millions of homes: Like the characters in this sharply observed comedy and the works of Kafka, we don’t know who holds the reins of power—we just know it is isn’t us.
Through Jan. 30. $36-$65. Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St.215.546.7824. wilmatheater.org