Southwest Theatre Productions' The Understudy

Southwest Theatre's focused cast overcomes the oddities in the script to serve up a snarky, funny look at the theatre business

"All I see are movie stars," says Harry, the definitely-not-bitter titular understudy in Theresa Rebeck's 2009 play The Understudy, presented by Southwest Theatre Productions. "It's like a disease. Not a disease ... I didn't mean 'disease' ... more like a 'pathology,' or 'ongoing cultural disaster.'"

This thread holds together a rather ragtag script – at times poignant commentary on the state of New York's commercial theatre industry, at others self-referential backstage farce. Though burdened with the script's multiple motifs, a focused cast pulls off a memorable production.

Harry, played with neurotic glee by Nicholas Kier, has been cast as an understudy in a fictitious, "undiscovered" Kafka piece on Broadway. Should the need arise, he'll be filling in for action film star Jake, played by charisma-oozing Devin Finn, who will in turn go up for the unseen star of the play within the play. We are at Harry's first understudy rehearsal, helmed by Roxanne, the stage manager – who, it turns out, was left at the altar by Harry some six years prior. What follows is a dissection of an art form plagued by greed, with producers focused more on the ticket sales that a movie star will bring than the magic of the craft.

At its strongest when its actors are engaged with one another about the nature of art vs. business, The Understudy suffers from a few odd choices in Rebeck's script. Harry starts the play with one of many soliloquies to the audience, setting up a convention later destroyed when we find out he can be heard backstage over the loudspeaker. Focus is often shifted away from the moment onstage, due to an unseen character: a drug-addled board op who can't seem to find, follow, or remain in the correct cue. And while Susan Harris' staunch and lonely set conjures the right feel for a Kafka piece on Broadway, complete with human-powered automation, the interruptions inherent in the script – random, abrupt lighting changes and set transformations – are unwelcome breaks from the action, often derailing moments that take time to ramp back up. A love triangle briefly emerges as well, though it isn't fully developed and seems rather out of place, never really going anywhere before the show's end.

These are script problems, though, and while I'm often curious about a director's choice of play, I'm also interested in seeing how they choose to tackle such obvious problems. Here, director Joni Lorraine keeps her cast focused on the moment, always organically living in the now, keeping pace with the abrupt stylistic changes.

As Roxanne the stage manager, Kristin Chiles has perhaps the most challenging role. Chiles embodies the frazzled, frustrated, but ultimately in-control aura of a Broadway SM perfectly as she wrangles the fragile egos of the actors onstage, her feelings of turning from acting to tech in order to continue working professionally, and the reappearance of the man who once scorned her. One of the strongest moments of the play, in fact, occurs when she and Jake are discussing the play within the play, and Roxanne questions why there are no women. She proceeds to slip her "actor" hat back on, showing just how much more powerful some of the lines could be.

All in all, Southwest Theatre Productions makes the best of The Understudy. While I found myself wanting more of what made it great, I left satisfied with a production that overcame its flaws in favor of a funny, snarky look at the theatre business.

The Understudy

Santa Cruz Studio Theater, 1805 E. Seventh
Through Sept. 9

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Southwest Theatre Productions, Joni Lorraine, Kristin Chiles, Susan Harris, Devin Finn, Nicholas Kier

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