At times, The Understudy suffers from the cutesy, pandering quality that occurs in "theater about theater" these days. For every joke about why anyone would want to steal someone else's Actor's Equity card or the stoner who's always up in the sound booth, the audience is all too ready to respond with self-congratulatory titters, signaling their status as insiders in what is often too insular a world.
Thankfully, this taut, action-packed comedy -- now in its West Coast premiere at San Jose Rep, written by Theresa Rebeck and directed by Amy Glazer -- offers much more than easy inside jokes. In fact, it's a most compelling love letter to the medium in contemporary theater, and it has the heart to win over insiders and outsiders alike.
Part of what makes that love letter so compelling is that its writers have little reason to love theater. Harry (played with pouty charm by Gabriel Marin) is a misunderstood, underappreciated actor -- you know, unlike all the other actors out there. He's the understudy of the play's title, forced by unjust financial exigencies to accept scraps of work that are far beneath him. But he's not bitter -- as he makes a point of reminding the audience several times.
Roxanne (Jessica Wortham) has it even worse. She had to give up acting for stage managing, and now she can barely contain her desire to throw off her headset and jump back on stage. Worse still, Harry is her ex-fiancé, and she hasn't seen him since he jilted her, practically at the altar, years ago. (Rebeck's contrivance to get them on stage together and have it be a surprise feels quite clunky, but the plot and the dialogue zip along so quickly that you never dwell long on your dramaturgical quibbles.)
Then there's Jake (Craig Marker, winning as ever), whom the gods of show business have treated more kindly, a fact discernible from his costume alone: leather jacket, aviators, gelled bangs, cell in one hand and latte in the other. His latest action movie, he reminds us numerous times, grossed $67 million its opening weekend; now he's sitting pretty on Broadway with a lead role in "Kafka's undiscovered masterpiece," our play-within-a-play. And he's actually enjoying immersing himself in Kafka, even criticizing one translation for lacking "the quality of disaster" so central to the writer's vision -- a hilarious contrast coming from the meathead that Marker makes Jake out to be.
The play is a love and power triangle in a rehearsal room. Roxanne and Harry are constantly jockeying for Jake's allegiance. At one moment, Jake is Roxanne's right-hand man, certifying her authority with but a nod of that powerful chin. The next, he concedes that Harry really does have a point with his actorly analysis of how a character really would hold a gun.
The triangle, however, is not so carefully balanced. Marin and Marker, who have worked together before, have delightful bromantic chemistry. When they sit side by side, sneakily eating their props together, they transform from two grown doofuses in a show biz pissing contest to two little boys playing in the sandbox. Wortham has a tougher time connecting to her scene partners; her many fits of rage feel predetermined, her screeches and shakes more carefully choreographed than honest and present.
Soon, however, even Jake proves dispensable, as dictated by the mysterious entertainment moguls who never appear in the play but whose influence looms large. But how the characters react to this news is what gives this play its heart. For Jake, Roxanne, and Harry, if the show won't go on, they'll make their own.
The Understudy continues through June 3 at San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio (at Second St.), San Jose. Admission is $10-$74.