"The Understudy" is a play of wit and energy that explores the complicated relationships between people, between making art and making an income, and between talent and chance. For a play with only three cast members, that's a lot of ground to cover.
At the Alder Stage at Artists Repertory Theatre, Ayanna Berkshire, Jared Q. Miller and Gavin Hoffman bring to the stage Roxanne, Jake and Harry while they attempt a "put in" rehearsal (a dress rehearsal for a new cast member just before they are expected to go on) after Harry is cast as an understudy for Jake.
Stage manager Roxanne has the task of running the rehearsal, but balks when she realizes that Harry, who is going under a stage name, is her former fiancé, who jilted her two weeks before their wedding and then disappeared for six years. Harry's recent past is obscured, but he believes himself to be a more pure talent than most of Hollywood, including the guy who starred in a recent action flick Harry just saw -- and hated.
Jake, the second lead in the play, knows a thing or two about Kafka and has done some film work, most notably, as the star of the action flick Harry hated so much for its loathsome banality.
The initial shock of seeing Harry again puts Roxanne, the intelligent and capable stage manager, off-kilter. We learn that she is a former actor who had to take work as a stage manager after Harry left. (I had trouble understanding why, if they weren't married, and they didn't apparently have any children, Roxanne would have to change her profession because she *didn't* get married.)
Despite the fact that Harry did most of the talking in the show (or at least it seemed like he did), we know very little about him. Did he leave just because he was a coward? Did he leave because he couldn't handle failing at theatre? If that's the case, why did he come back? The absence of some of these facts was, at least, mentioned, but the mystery of Harry's background is unsolved.
It's important to the plot, because Roxanne's life now was defined by that moment, and I suspect Harry's current position as "spear carrier number seven" has something to do with that history. But we are not privy to this information, and it's not clear why.
Jake is a simpler matter. He's an action-movie star whose role in this Broadway show is selling a lot of advance tickets to the limited-run production. I was reminded of the character Sam Weber from "The Big Chill," famous for his looks and ability to pull a weapon, but possessing the intellectual depth of a hammer.
Hoffman brings a robust physical comedy to the role of Harry. His practice of a scene where he has to take a drink before saying a line was very funny. And this man has an incredible set of pipes. I'd listen to him read the ingredients on a cereal box. Seeing him cycle through different choices for his role in the Kafka play made me want to see this actor in many different roles.
In a similar way, Berkshire brings a magnetic talent to bear as Roxanne. Her anger at Harry and frustration at her lot in life burn like jet fuel, but when she takes the stage to demonstrate how a woman would be superior in some of the roles in the play, she moves so quickly into a different character it's captivating.
As Jake, Miller performs adequately, although I had trouble discerning whether he was pretending to be a bad actor, as the script demands. Since it's a play about a rehearsal, I wanted the director to yell "CUT!" and tell Miller to stop pointing, musical-theatre style, at the invisible horizon with his hand. Not every line requires a gesture.
There is a lot of humor in "The Understudy." I haven't laughed so hard at a show since I was watching a stand-up comic perform. There is a fourth character, the unseen and unheard Laura, whose job it is to hit light and set cues at Roxanne's command. Roxanne's interaction with the invisible stagehand is some of the funniest stuff in the show.
There's also a great deal of poetry and wisdom. The best moments happen when Roxanne is detailing her heartbreak, and pointing out the misogyny in Kafka. Her painful monologue about facing the silence of a breakup was true and insightful.
It's a light evening of entertaining theatre about the people putting on an intellectually challenging show fraught with profound meaning. And for those of you with a lot of theatre experience, like the guy sitting next to me who laughed louder than everyone else in the place, you'll have a great time.
"The Understudy" runs through October 4 at the Alder Stage, Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison St., Portland, OR 97205. For information and tickets, call 503-241-1278 or visit https://www.artistsrep.org/onstage/2015-16-season/the-understudy.aspx