Posted by: strugglesome | January 10, 2011

All The World’s A Stage: The Wilma Theater’s The Understudy

Writing a play about theater is an extremely tricky business. Painters, with the exception of Diego Velázquez and  Norman Rockwell, don’t tend to create canvases of painters painting, dancers don’t dance about dancing, I can think of nothing more boring than reading a book with a writer writing about writing, but theater, ah, theater is a different kind of animal. Theater may be the most hyper-self-aware of art forms, or the most self-centered,  because there is nothing it seems that theater loves more than discussing itself. Or at the very least, there is nothing playwrights seem to love so much as writing about theater. And that makes sense, it’s a bizarre art form, a collective decision to ignore real-time and space and invest completely in fantasy. Who wouldn’t want to discuss something like that? It’s little wonder that playwrights from Shakespeare to Stoppard are fascinated with “going meta”. However, there is a large difference between theater that is interesting for the playwright to create and theater that is interesting for the audience to watch. And that is the unfortunate problem with Theresa Rebeck’s The Understudy, because while the Wilma Theater’s production of the piece is predictably solid, the play itself is rather weak at the knees.

Set over the course of a day-long rehearsal featuring passionate but slightly dim action star Jake (Brad Coolidge), sarcastic, snobby, slightly desperate stage actor Harry (Cody Nickwell) and impossibly frazzled former actress/stage manager Roxanne (Jenn Harris), this play touches on fame, theater, Franz Kafka and failed love affairs, skimming along the surface of each without touching anything particularly deeply. The central plot point is the conflict between Nickwell’s Harry, the bitter, desperate theater actor who has been hired as the understudy to Coolidge’s movie star turned Broadway baby Jake, who is starring in an exciting new production of a freshly discovered piece authored by none other than laugh-riot Franz Kafka. Harry’s fury at having to play second fiddle to an actor who’s typical co-star is CGI becomes complicated by his discovery that the stage manager is Roxanne, his former fiancée. . Harry and Roxanne dance around their issues and Jake throws down (and bros down) on existentialism and the conflict between money and art, the set (designed by Andrew Boyce) around them swirls in and out, run ineptly by “Laura”, the never-appearing constantly stoned stage hand in the lighting booth. And as Harry and Jake clash over process while Roxanne runs interference and works to suppress her own emotional baggage, the three try to create something approaching a productive rehearsal, though they have to dodge swinging set pieces and Kafkaesque questions in order to do so.

Part of the issue with this play is it’s lack of focus. While Rebeck’s writing is intelligent and funny, it’s also scattered, sometimes self congratulatory, and occasionally clunky. (awkward lines like “That movie was not long on poetry” can’t be fully evened out by beautiful lines like “[The wedding dress] hanging in my closet like a wound on a hanger”.) But more than that, there is a general absence of through line and focal point that is frustrating to watch. The exciting and frightening thing about live performance is that it’s unpredictable. A movie can control everything about the gaze of the audience, there is close up, there is a camera lens. One has only to watch Dziga Vertog’s The Man With The Movie Camera to see that film is a discipline of control, a control that theater finds itself completely lacking. You can’t control what exactly a theater audience sees, you can’t guide the eye completely, you can only suggest points of interest. So the task of theater is to show the audience what is important without the benefit of a framed film shot. This is, of course, a herculean effort, but if it was easy, everyone would be doing it, right?

And this particular work makes more suggestions then statements, tossing around red herrings like market day in a Northern European fishing village. First of all, the play is peppered with unexplained things that take up a lot of stage time. Why did Harry walk out on Roxanne? What happened to Roxanne’s acting career? Who the hell is Bruce, Jake’s eternally absent, higher billed co-star? For that matter, who the hell is Laura? The play spends an awfully long time talking about and asking us to invest in people we never get to see and conflicts we never get to actualize, and unless that absent person’s name is Godot, that’s generally a major party foul.

Secondly, the rules of the world of the play are extremely unclear. While Harry can and does address the audience directly, using us as his sounding board, father confessor and sympathetic friend in turns, neither of the other two actors acknowledge the audience in any way. Is Harry unhinged, or are the two other characters blind? Are we as the audience spectators or participants? There is a bizarre duality in this play between a clear style of realism and an almost absurd melodrama, the actors switching between relating to each other naturally, and mugging up a storm for the benefit of the audience.

All that layered onto a”play within a play”, the rehearsal of the supremely stylized Kafka period piece whose set is a hilariously fake looking series of mobile backdrops creates a very odd environment, and one in which the audience doesn’t quite know what to trust.  It’s almost as if Rebeck declined to make any real style choices about this world, and by doing so left the whole piece open for confusion. The most evident physical manifestation of this is found in the set design. It’s particularly odd to see a fake “back of the stage” set being flown out and another set piece being placed BEHIND , effectively informing the audience that we need to believe in a fake backstage when there is a perfectly good perfectly real one in the actual theater. (I assume). Why make it so complicated? You have a theater, the play is set in a theater. At a talk I once attended given by Elevator Repair Service, one of the company members made the comment that real objects assert their realness, they demand to be acknowledged. If you are literally inside of a theater both physically and in the world of the play, do you really need to build another one?

While Boyce and Sarah Sidman (the lighting designer) are both caught up in this ideological struggle, only Christopher Colucci (the sound designer) manages to escape. His design at least seems to be poking fun at the fake production inside the real play, the sound becomes a rather sassy commentator, laughing at the hapless actors struggling to stay afloat. But because none of the rest of the production is making that choice, the sound is almost in conflict with the rest of the design, a lone voice of dissent in a room full of yeses. And that’s a shame, because all of the design is fairly well done, it just doesn’t all serve the production or create a unity of piece. Rebeck has a wonderful concept with the idea of a set that has a mind of its own, but doesn’t take it anywhere, and as a result we are left like the actors, confused and stuck in the dark.

And speaking of the actors, all three of them discharge their roles strongly and skillfully, milking their ironic utterances with well-timed aplomb. Harris was strongest for me in her rare moments of stillness and silence, exposing real sentiment underneath all the layers of competency and bursts of manic frantic action. She certainly uses her body best of the trio, with Nickwell’s sheepishly snarky Harry bringing in a close second and Coolidge’s slightly stiff Brad lagging behind. But as talented and dynamic as these three actors are, it’s supremely ironic that they should be visitors to our fair city from the center of the universe, that is, New York. In a play that continuously references how many screen actors are dominating (and stealing parts from) theater actors on Broadway, it seems a sadly comic choice to use New York actors in a Philadelphia production. Really drives that point home about art imitating life.

Despite its inconsistencies, Rebeck and director David Kennedy have created an often interesting story about the absurdity of theater, of life, and of defeat. As Roxanne reminds us, “Yes, words fucking fail, this is hardly news”. And yet we must keep talking to each other, “Silence is such a defeat”. It is, perhaps, a shame that Rebeck focused this piece on Kafka. It all sounds more like Gogol to me.

You can pick up tickets to The Wilma Theater’s production of The Understudy here, it runs from now until January 30th.


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