Review: The Understudy by Southwest Theatre Productions
by Michael Meigs
Playwright Theresa Rebeck has great fun with this cartoonishly cynical look at the business of theatre. Not theatre as we like it and practice it here in Austin, or even as the three vivid and vigorous cast members practice it in this piece. Her theme is that in big league art the megastars and the money men rule, while those very many hopeful and talented artistis looking for a break are willfully deluding themselves.
Her tidy triangle of stereotypes includes Nicholas Kier as the foolishly neurotic wannabe Harry, recruited as an understudy purely to placate the hairdresser of the wife of one of the producers; Devin Finn as Jake the mid-level film star backing up the unseen megastar 'Bruce' ($22 million per picture) who's taking a break with a Broadway production; and Kristin Chiles as the decisive and demanding stage manager Roxanne, turned tech after years of frustration as an actress. The set-up is that Harry is meeting Jake for the first time for a run-through, just in case Jake steps into the starring role if the megastar can't or won't come on. If that never happens, the earnest and hopeful Harry will be paid simply to stand and wait throughout the run of the show.
Rebeck has made Harry a total mess, neurotic, self-absorbed, obsessively exploring expression and gesture in what is little more than a throw-away role in the Kafka piece. He's the first character we meet as he turns up in a dark theatre, and his obsessive babbling is disconcerting. We have to choose: either he's mentally ill, or Rebeck is stretching our disbelief to provide some exposition. For what real actor would be addressing a theatre of empty seats in such confessional fashion? Kier embraces that neurosis and gets us past the disconcerting opening. In the course of encounters with quietly assured Jake and insistent Roxanne he creates a whole character out of the patchwork.
The scenes rehearsed are Rebeck's imaginings of a perfectly horrible script: a previously unknown text of Franz Kafka turned into what sounds like a throughly B-level noir script. Susan Harris's gloriously tawdry set for the Kafka piece reinforces that impression. The ersatz Kafka is justified as a star vehicle for the absent Bruce, and it's touching to see Kier as Harry doing his best to breathe life into it. He comes up with some good bits, especially the one about holding the revolver, but Rebeck is really suggesting that his zeal for mimetics is almost a gesture of worship of the art itself. Finn as mid-Hollywood Jake is offhand, thoughtful and contained, suggesting talents that flourished with SAG instead of wth Equity. Jake has almost made it, but in Rebeck's satire 'almost' is destined never to be enough.
Kristin Chiles as the stage manager is obliged to spend a great deal of her time being exasperated, principally with the new understudy (who has risen from her past as an unwelcome revenant) but also with the offstage tech up in the light and sound booth. As things fall apart toward the end, she faces catastrophe with integrity and even comes up with a bit of a smile. Klezmer music, first heard before the action began, returns for the rehearsal of the final scene of the Kafka play that won't go on. Appropriately, the three characters go ahead learning the steps of the dance to that woeful joyful music. They're celebrating the arts of drama and lost opportunities.
The Understudy is a rueful comedy. Instead of being a bellyful of laughs, it's a treat for the head and heart.
Director Joni Lorraine chose a fine cast for this lovingly dystopian tale. Each avoids the pitfalls of stereotyping, and they balance one another. They endure the playwright's vigorously chopping satire. And each lets us glimpse a subtle epiphany, demonstrating aptly how an actor's interpretation turns a script into a living experience.
August 25 - September 09, 2017
somewhere in Austin
to be announced
Austin, TX, 78700
August 25, 2017 - 8:00 p.m.
CANCELLED: Saturday, August 26, 2017 because of inclement weather
August 27th – 4:30 p.m.
August 31st, September 1st, 2nd – 8:00 p.m.
Sunday, September 3rd – INDUSTRY NIGHT – 15.00 TICKETS!!
September 7th, 8th & 9th – 8:00 p.m.
Santa Cruz Center for Culture, E. 7th Street, Austin
Tickets $22 and $25 plus service fees, available via
Southwest Theatre Productions "THE UNDERSTUDY" is a sponsored project of Austin Creative Alliance, a non-profit arts service organization s well as Cultural Arts, City of Austin Economic Development.