God is an invisible sound and light technician who seems constantly to be missing her cues. If she exists at all, she’s probably stoned out of her infinite mind. This is the funniest implication of playwright Theresa Rebeck’s existential rehearsal play, “The Understudy,” currently making its Boston debut at the Lyric.
Like Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” Durang’s “Actor’s Nightmare” and Mamet’s “A Life in the Theater” among others, “The Understudy” aptly makes the case that theater, with its role playing, proscribed movements, artifice and inevitable final curtain, mirrors the absurdity of man’s short, demanding, confusing journey through life.
In Rebeck’s play, Harry (Christopher James Webb), a struggling actor, stumbles through his one big rehearsal as understudy to Jake (Kelby T. Akin), a mid grade action movie star. Big shot that he is, Jake is only the play’s second biggest draw. Engrossed as he is in is role, he is also in fact understudying a bigger movie star in this, the major lead in this, the Broadway premier of a lost play by Franz Kafka.
The conceit of course, is that show business is inherently Kafkaesque regardless of the script. It plays out neatly—perhaps even a bit too neatly to keep us on our toes. There’s not much here to startle us into laughter, accept for a powerhouse performance from actress Laura Latreille as Roxanna, the exasperated stage manager who fights a Cleeseian battle to maintain her poise while single-handedly preserving the preposterous social structure that underpins a futile rehearsal for a doomed production.
Latreille fills her emotionally single-pitched role with an impressive range of growls, lilts, shouts, pleadings and rhythms of restrained sarcasm, married to a masterly array of kicks, twists, squats and gesticulations inspired by the suppression of her inner tempest. She’s a perfect counterpoint to Webb’s humiliated everyman, and Akin’s histrionic, faux-deep, power player.
The majority of the play’s conflict centers on one-upmanship between the two men, but its juiciest moments always come when they are specifically vying for the approval or affection of Roxanna the referee who alternates seamlessly between servant and boss.
The more you know about theater rehearsals and about the works of Kafka the more likely you are to chuckle at “The Understudy,” but the idea here is that even if you know fairly little about these subjects you should be able to recognize a good humiliating hierarchy, and a vigorous exercise in futility when you see one. Both are vividly illustrated. If anything, they are only all too familiar.
Directed by Larry Coen, “The Understudy” plays through January 29.