Saturday, November 14, 2009

Theater Review: The Understudy

Performances are Fun, but the Plot Needs a Few Pages of Reality
By Lauren Yarger
If a long-lost, three-hour masterpiece of confusion by Franz Kafka were discovered, how could you make it a commercial success on Broadway? Just cast two hot Hollywood stars.

That scenario, not far from the reality of this season’s Hollywood-star-driven productions on the Great White Way, is the basis for Theresa Rebeck’s play The Understudy, presented Off-Broadway by the Roundabout Theater, and while it loses touch with reality in a few places, it is entertaining if you’re in the theater business. If you’re not, just enjoy the performances.

Justin Kirk is Harry, a down-on-his-luck actor who has been cast as understudy to one of the Kafka play’s stars, Jake (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), whose most recent film earned him millions for delivering riveting lines like, “Get in the truck!” amidst a lot of explosions and action-packed plot. Harry’s a little jealous of that. OK, he’s a lot jealous of that, especially since he had tried out for the action movie part and didn’t get it.

He did land this understudy part, but there probably is no chance Harry will ever get to go on, unless Jake, who also understudies the play’s other Hollywood star whose movies gross even more than Jake’s, has to go on for him. The truth is that if either of the film stars can’t go on, the theater audience probably will walk out and demand refunds.

He and Jake butt heads during a put-in rehearsal where the understudies runs through their scenes on stage. The process is made more difficult when the harried stage manager, Roxanne (Julie White) turns out to be "harried" in more ways than one: he's her ex who left without explanation two weeks before their wedding.

Trying to put her personal feelings aside and deal with things like a pot-smoking techie (an unseen character named Laura) who keeps bringing up the wrong lighting and sound cues while moving the wrong set pieces onto the stage (the at-night stage set and the accompanying sets for the Kafka play are designed by Alexander Dodge), Roxanne tries to appease big-star Jake while keeping the “let’s-try-it-another-way” Harry on book.

White is a lot of fun playing the range from neurotic stage manager to broken-hearted bride. She is the epitome of frustration, offering body language, facial expressions and changing tones of screaming to try to get through the rehearsal (if you’ve ever been in charge of a rehearsal like this, believe me, you feel her pain).

Kirk, who ironically sounds a lot like a big movie star, namely his voice reminded me of Tom Hanks, has a comparable talent for timing delivery and makes the most of his lines. He had me laughing out loud when he tried to hit his mark in the light while uttering a Kafkaesque line about the light being lost. A scene with Gosselaar involving some hand slapping and paper stamping is almost slapstick.

Both White’s and Kirk’s performances can go over the top, however, and should have been reined in by director Scott Ellis.

Gosselaar gives Jake depth, so we believe that the pretty-faced and attractively built star, whose physique is showcased in jeans and a T-shirt by costume designer Tom Broecker, reveres the horrible-sounding Kafka piece because he wants to do something deeper than “get in the truck!”

The play’s biggest weakness, however, is its plot, which Rebeck hinges on implausible coincidences to make it easy to write: Harry just happens to be Roxanne’s ex and she doesn’t realize this until he arrives because he had changed his name (but he, when told to report for this rehearsal doesn’t recognize her name?); would a Hollywood star of Jake’s caliber also be understudy to the other Hollywood star in the show (not likely, but this justifies Jake’s being at the rehearsal); how many times can the characters go off in search of props or to use the bathroom only for those left behind on stage to discover that their revealing conversations or actions have been overheard by the other on the theater’s intercom system which for some reason is on for the rehearsal (a lot of times, apparently); would a pot-smoking techie who can’t do her job really remain employed (and while Roxanne is up in the booth fixing Laura’s mistakes, why doesn’t she switch off that darn intercom?)

Overall, The Understudy isn’t as deep as Kafka, but thankfully it can be an entertaining time at the theater.

The Understudy runs through Jan. 17 at the Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St., NYC. Tickets are available by calling 212-719-1300. For a special group discount for our readers, click here and be sure to indicate that the religious organization you wish to support is Masterwork Productions.

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York in February 2018.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. and the Episcopal Actors' Guild.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2018 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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