Westport’s “The Understudy” Shows How Casting and Direction Can Change Focus

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Brett Dalton, Andrea Syglowski, Eric Bryant. Photo by Carol Rosegg

By Karen Isaacs

 The Understudy by Theresa Rebeck, the current production at Westport Country Playhouse, is a good example of how the balance in a play can shift based on the cast and director.

David Kennedy had directed this three person, 90+ minute backstage comedy which runs through Sept. 1 with a sure hand.

The play opens with Harry, a 30ish journeyman actor arriving at a theater; no one is there. So he addresses the audience in a humorous rant about the acting profession, the frustrations of the movie star salaries and, in his view, the stars’ limited abilities, all the while proclaiming that he “isn’t bitter.”

Soon Jake arrives; he’s a mid-level movie action star who is now on Broadway in a Kafka play. His co-star (whom we never see) is Bruce, a much older and much bigger action star.

Harry is there for an understudy rehearsal. The plan is that if Bruce misses a performance, than Jake will take his role and Harry will take Jake’s.

The last to arrive is Roxanne, the stage manager who will be overseeing the rehearsal. The kicker is that six years ago, Harry walked out on Roxanne two weeks before the wedding.

As the rehearsal begins and progresses, Harry wants to do more than just duplicate Jake’s performance; at first Jake is defensive but begins to see that some of Harry’s comments and suggestions are on target. Jake is also up for a major film role that he really wants and so is constantly checking with his agent about any news.

Roxanne is, naturally, still furious with Harry which makes it difficult for her to manage the situation – massaging Jake’s ego, getting Harry to just duplicate the existing performance, and dealing with an unseen production person who brings on the wrong sets, disappears, and calls the wrong lighting cues.

But if the theater is the creation of an “unreal” reality then Kafka also did that in many of his works. The actors in the theater have a role in the real world and the “unreal.”

An added source of humor (or maybe it is just too much coincidence) is the fact that even in the dressing rooms, the speakers are on so that anyone off-stage can hear anything that on stage discuss.

In previous productions I’ve seen, Roxanne seemed the center of the show while Harry, the struggling “serious” actor had my sympathy.

But with this cast, the center has changed to Jake. Brett Dalton has done a fine job in creating a character who is much more than the ego driven movie star. He seems genuinely though naively enthusiastic about the play which appears to be a mashup for Kafka’s other works. His Jake slowly reveals his insecurities, his jealousy of Bruce, and later his disappointment. This Jake is less macho star and more a little boy playing at confidence.

Eric Bryant gives us a less sympathetic Harry. This Harry is more obtuse and unaware of his affect on those around him, more eager to show off his knowledge than work as a team member. It’s clear that this Harry resents having to be an understudy and probably never go on in the part.

If in other productions, Roxanne seems the center, in this production Andrea Syglowski doesn’t grab the spotlight. Her Roxanne is too one-note and too shrill. It’s like she started at level 9 and had no really room to go up. How Roxanne feels about Harry after six years of silence is unclear.

Kennedy has used the aisle and the space just in front to the stage to good effect. When Jake gets an important phone call, he goes into the audience stage right to have some privacy. It allows us to see Dalton’s reactions which are superb. The scenic design by Andrew Boyce includes several sets for the show. Lighting designer Matthew Richards also creates interesting “in show” lighting.

The Understudy is an enjoyable comedy that even those not knowledgeable about theater will find funny.

For tickets contact Westport Country Playhouse or call 888-927-7529.

Brett Dalton and Eric Bryant. Photo by Carol Rosegg

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