Friday, November 06, 2009

The Understudy

photo: Carol Rosegg

Theresa Rebeck has authored some dogs in her day, but none compare to her latest play (at Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre), a saccharinely sanitized attempt at a backstage farce. When a seasoned actor (Justin Kirk) is hired to understudy a movie star making his Broadway debut (Mark-Paul Gosselaar, a television star making his theatre debut)--who in turn is understudying the other (never-seen) bigger movie star in the show--he gets a lot more than he bargained for, when he discovers that his ex-fiancee (Julie White) is the production stage manager. That is the entire plot. Rebeck has managed to stretch this out into eighty humorless minutes, throwing in cheap jokes about Jeremy Piven and actorly platitudes about the grandness of life in the theatre. It doesn't help that two of the three actors are woefully miscast: the cerebral Kirk valiantly tries (and fails) to convey comic relief, while White's gifts as a natural comedienne are wasted in the straight woman role. Gosselaar is fine, but he's saddled with one of the most one-note characters in recent memory. Rebeck probably wanted to allow the audience to watch a slice of what goes on backstage, but what they'll really end up doing is that other great theatrical tradition: watching their watch.

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