Everyman Theatre opens season with crisp staging of 'The Understudy'

Poor Harry. The struggling actor lucked out auditioning for an understudy gig, but he has little respect for the guy he's understudying -- Jake, a so-so star of low-grade disaster movies.

To make things more uncomfortable, the stage manager running the rehearsal turns out to be Harry's former fiancee, Roxanne, and she is far from pleased at the reunion. Still, Harry is determined to plunge into the play, a long-buried work by Franz Kafka filled with challenging existential musings and surreal situations.

Such is the promising set-up for Theresa Rebeck's comedy "The Understudy," now enjoying a robust, season-opening production from Everyman Theatre.

This intermission-less, 90-minute slice of backstage life does not entirely fulfill its potential. Some elements are overly contrived, especially the breaking-the-fourth-wall monologues; others are under-developed. Implausibilities crop up a little too often.

But there's something to be said for a play that manages to mix humor and hubris; bromance and bananas; a little philosophy and poetic speech (when was the last time you heard "darkling" used in a sentence?); flash lights and strange dance moves.

Everyman manages to give "The Understudy" quite a boost, thanks to a beautifully matched, finely tuned cast directed with considerable flair by Joseph W. Ritsch. Above all, the staging underlines Rebeck's affectionate homage to the whole world of theater -- the people, the anxieties and neuroses, the drudgery, the wonder.

As Harry, Clinton Brandhagen is a natural. No one in this town does the dazed look better than he does. And, from the moment he walks out, a scarf wrapped thickly around his neck like a life preserver, Brandhagen's Harry is delectably at sea in this world of egos and Kafka. The actor also brings out Harry's fundamentally endearing nature.

There's a wonderful moment when Harry, after rehearsing some of the dense Kafka play, admits to Jake that "when I do the lines, something happens to my heart." Brandhagen keeps those words from sounding cliched and helps the sentiment register deeply, genuinely.

The cocky Jake stands to gain industry cred by venturing into Broadway. But he's only the co-star. The box office draw for this unexpected Kafka hit is another movie actor trying out the boards, a Hollywood A-lister who commands $22 million per picture. Naturally, Jake, who's only in the $2 million league, is a bundle of jealousy and resentment.

Danny Gavigan charges into the role of Jake and fleshes it out with many a deft detail. The nervous energy, the competitive edge, the touch of vulnerability -- all emerge tellingly. Gavigan is particularly persuasive conveying Jake's enthusiasm for delving into the complexities of Kafka, even while fretting over his next movie deal.

Beth Hylton makes it easy to feel the weight of all the bitter baggage the harried Roxanne carries around, along with the harried woman's nagging needs. Roxanne gets the most emotional material in the play and Hylton makes much of it without overdoing anything. She also has knows how to give the comic side a good kick. 

All three actors, for that matter, shine in the play's funny bits (some of those bits may be a little too inside-theater or inside-Kafka for some folks). They slip just as effortlessly into scenes aiming for something serious, reaching a particular high in the rather sweet, closing moments that give "The Understudy" an unlikely touch of magic.

A recurring comic shtick involves sets for the Kafka play that keep rolling onstage at the wrong time during rehearsal because the technician is stoned (wouldn't a big-deal Broadway show be a little stricter with staff?).

Everyman's resident set designer Daniel Ettinger has conjured up terrific scenery that oozes German Expressionist angst for this stage business. Almost makes you wish there really was a Kafka play. 

"The Understudy" runs through Sept. 28 at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette St. Tickets are $34-$60. Call 410-752-2208, or go to everymantheatre.org.

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