The Undestudy 


Off-Broadway, Play

Location: Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center For Theatre, Laura Pels Theatre

Justin Kirk, Julie White, and Mark-Paul Gosselaar in The Understudy. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

BOTTOM LINE:  This hilarious play-within-a-play has excellent performances and is a must see.

"A new Broadway play based on the musings of Franz Kafka hits the boards starring two of Hollywood's hottest hotties." Sounds all too familiar, right? This now commonplace trend to get butts in seats on Broadway is the fodder for Theresa Rebeck's new play, The Understudy. Giving new life to the play-within-a-play convention, Rebeck has a magical way with words and the ability to turn every theatre cliché and industry inside joke into comic genius for all.  Supported by a talented cast and detailed direction, The Roundabout Theater Company's latest production to hit Off-Broadway is a must see.

Known for her quick wit and realistic, straightforward writing style Rebeck's plays generally revolve around character-driven motivation with a simple, clear plot. The Understudy takes place in real-time, over the course of a single day - the day of a pickup rehearsal to bring the new understudy in Broadway's latest star-vehicle, up to speed.  

The show opens as Harry (Justin Kirk, of Showtime's Weeds), addresses the audience directly  (just one of many nods to various theatrical conventions contained in this clever, well-written, comedy). Harry is your typical, successful stage actor whose name is largely unknown and he makes no effort to hide his disgust for the Hollywood transplant for whom he is understudying. Kirk flips back and forth brilliantly between confiding his displeasure with the casting, practicing his lines for rehearsal, and imitating his cast-mate's latest lackluster blockbuster performance, squatting low and shouting "Get in the truck! Get in the truck! Get in the truck!"  
Rebeck manages to squeeze every clichéd convention without being trite herself; besides the play-within-a-play idea she mocks the use of arbitrary grandiose spectacle that has become such a moneymaking tool on Broadway (rather than stellar stories with standout actors) such as a majestic snowfall (or insert the precipitation, backed my cool lighting of your choice here) for no other reason than because it looks pretty. There is even a musical number because well, because frankly musicals sell. These and other seemingly out of place items are justified not only through the somewhat farcical style but, even better, since the play is supposed to be a lost work of Kafka's...there is absolutely no reason that random snowfalls and dreamlike dance numbers shouldn't make perfect sense.  

Rebeck even pokes fun at common behind-the-scenes truisms of the theatre community, for example with the character Roxanne, played superbly by Tony award-winning actress Julie White (also of the summer blockbuster Transformers). White plays an actress-turned-stage-manager (plus various other theatre professions other than actor). Rebeck jokes about name changes, and proper prop etiquette, such as eating the props (a theatre pro no-no). She even includes technical difficulties ranging from a stoned board operator to everyone forgetting that the loudspeaker pumps into the dressing room (the perfect device for secrets and hidden feelings to be revealed). Nothing in the theatre community is sacred...not even mercury poisoning (coincidentally, Jeremy Piven recovered miraculously from that very same ailment immediately after he broke his contract when his performance in Speed-The-Plow on Broadway last winter was not so well received - but it's okay, I hear he's now healthy and happy as a tuna).

Rebeck's Hollywood transplant is action-star, hollywood-hottie Jake, a "B-lister, really," played by Mark-Paul Gosselaar. That's right, kids, TV teen sensation Zach Morris from Saved By The Bell (also currently starring in TNT's drama Raising The Bar). Gosselaar, much like his character, is a big enough star to draw attention but not as big as fictional costar Bruce (who is someone the likes of say, Bruce Willis or maybe Hugh Jackman). Also like his character, not only is this Gosselaar's first time on Broadway but it is his New York stage debut as well. Once again, like his character, Gosselaar proves that he is more than just a pretty face that has the potential to rake in box office pull.  His performance is spot-on. He is sincere with comic-timing to boot. Perhaps one of my favorite moments in the play is a more somber one when Jake discovers he did not get a role he was up for in a big film. Gosselaar does an excellent job of giving the dumb blonde-type a heart and, believe it or not, a brain too.  

Though Rebeck takes jabs at today's state of theatre arts and Broadway in particular, The Understudy is also an homage to the stage. After all, it is her play starring actors with rather well-known film and TV credits gracing the Great White Way. Gosselaar, White, and Kirk are a great team to watch. This cast, together with expert direction by Scott Ellis who utilizes every inch of stage, set, and even the house (White and Gosselaar cross in and out of the aisles during the performance), handle Rebeck's work with great comedic know-how. Never played for laughs (okay - maybe the mercury poisoning bit) but rather played for humor and honesty, The Understudy proves with ultimate irony that Hollywood stars and grandiose spectacle, when done well, really can work.  

(The Understudy plays through January 17, 2010 at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th St. between Broadway & 6th Ave. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30pm with Wednesday, Saturday & Sunday matinees at 2pm. For the holiday schedule visit  Running tIme is 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $70 - $80. To purchase tickets call Roundabout Ticket Services at 212-719-1300 or visit for more info.)