The Understudy (Review)

Comedy about theater world packs the Shelterhouse with love and hate

Critic's Pick

Somewhere in playwright Theresa Rebeck’s past there must have been a 420-too-friendly techie who smoked up the booth, a big-name hack who got the plum job and a lover who walked out without a word. Or maybe these professional disasters and personal heartbreaks, captured so hilariously and affectingly in The Understudy, are simply the products of Rebeck’s rich imagination. Either way, the comedy, now at Cincinnati Playhouse, has a ring of authenticity that anyone who’s ever acted, onstage or in life, should appreciate.

I’m not bitter,” insists Harry, a thirtysomething actor close to hanging it up. Now he’s been cast as stand-in to Jake, a B-list action hero making the leap from blockbusters to Broadway drama — in this case, a three-hour Kafka adaptation headlined by an A-list Hollywood star. The show is a surprise hit. Of course, when the production’s stage manager turns out to be Harry’s jilted former fiancée and when lightweight Jake turns out to be a Kafka savant and when the unseen but all-powerful producers prove themselves oblivious to this and anything else that matters, the bitterness hits the fan.

Few writers today can ramp up a gag or rework a sore point as satisfyingly as Rebeck does, here and throughout her remarkable oeuvre. (Other plays by the Ursuline Academy alumna include Bad Dates, Mauritius, Omnium Gatherum and Spike Heels.) Clearly inspired by her craft, director Michael Evan Haney, his charismatic and credible acting ensemble (David Christopher Wells, R. Ward Duffy and Kelly Hutchinson) and a smart design team have packed the small Shelterhouse space with a whole lot of theater love. And hate. A prop table hilariously spinning out of control embodies the careers these crazy people have chosen.

In the end, though, comes a beautiful illustration of why the artists — and we the audience — keep showing up.

THE UNDERSTUDY, presented by Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, continues through Oct. 17. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.
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