Justin Kirk, Julie White, and Mark-Paul Gosselaar
in The Understudy
(© Carol Rosegg)
Justin Kirk, Julie White, and Mark-Paul Gosselaar
in The Understudy
(© Carol Rosegg)
The Roundabout Theatre Company's production of The Understudy, now at the Laura Pels Theatre, bears but a surface resemblance to the one that premiered at the Williamstown Theatre Festival a summer ago. Textually, little has changed: Playwright Theresa Rebeck had only to toss in a passing reference to "mercury poisoning" to give her backstage comedy a topical tweak. What has been radically altered is the actors' approach to the material -- and, in fact, the actors themselves. Where Williamstown's production had a good cast -- Kristen Johnston, Reg Rogers, and Bradley Cooper -- the Roundabout's staging has a superb one in Julie White, Justin Kirk, and Mark-Paul Gosselaar.

The play takes place at a put-in rehearsal for a blockbuster Broadway production of an undiscovered drama by Franz Kafka -- a hilarious notion in and of itself. Down-on-his-luck actor Harry (Kirk) has been hired to cover for an action-movie star, Jake (Gosselaar), whose latest blockbuster grossed $67 million on its opening weekend. As harried stage manager Roxanne (White) must explain to the often-uppity Harry, Jake's star status makes him "Prince of the Universe" -- even though Jake himself may be called upon to stand in for the unseen headliner Bruce -- and Harry is "spear-carrier number seven." Not surprisingly, the two actors start out mutually antagonistic but end up grudging admirers of each other's work, while Roxanne and Harry eventually resolve their own long-ago personal history.

It helps that director Scott Ellis (who also helmed the Williamstown production) appears to have advised his actors to give the Kafka scenes their best, most sincere shot, rather than approach that material for parody. When Kirk and Gosselaar settle into their Kafka roles (implacable prosecutor and clueless detainee, naturally), they're both really good. It's easy to see how a schlock star starved for substance and a lowly but skilled understudy might actually bond over Kafka's work.

White, for whom the role of Roxanne was written, conveys just the right shopworn quality to suit an ex-actress reluctantly turned stage manager. At times reduced to cowering in her hoodie, she makes an appealingly vulnerable petty tyrant. Kirk aces the opening monologue, which revolves around the threnody "I'm not bitter" -- and then remains corrosively, creatively, and above all amusingly bitter throughout.

The authenticity that the actors achieve also helps to brings out Rebeck's brilliant layering of themes. Much as she might make fun of Kafka -- she gives Roxanne a great scene skewering his view of women -- she gets him deeply. After all, what could be more Kafkaesque that an unsuccessful actor trying against all odds to be heard and seen -- or a supposedly successful one adrift in a wasteland of pop culture? Still, the charming closing scene leaves us with a glimmer of hope for this odd-lot trio and their quest for some kind of meaningful recognition.