THE UNDERSTUDY at San Jose Rep a charmer

(RIGHT) (l to r) Jake (Craig Marker) argues with Harry (Gabriel Marin) about the "correct" way to play the scene in San Jose Rep's West Coast premiere of The Understudy.

(LEFT)(l to r) Jessica Wortham as Roxanne and Gabriel Marin as Harry in San Jose Rep's West Coast premiere of The Understudy.

THE UNDERSTUDY: Comedy by Theresa Rebeck. Directed by Amy Glazer. San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. (408) 367-7255 or May 23 –June 3, 2012

How does one create a comedy out of plot that revolves around Franz Kafka? First you find a talented author, like Theresa Rebeck, to bring all her knowledge of the inside workings of the theatrical world to create a backstage story line around a fictional recently discovered Kafka play in rehearsal. Then find three top-notch actors with great comic ability to perform before a fantastical revolving set by Annie Smart.

San Jose Rep’s production of The Understudy has all the ingredients mentioned and even has added competent Amy Glazer as director although she, like the revolving set, gets out of hand part of the time. The play will probably be more appreciated by theatre people but general audience on this Saturday matinee seem to be very appreciative of all the shenanigans.

Harry (Gabriel Marin) is an actor who is a perpetual understudy. Marin breaks the fourth wall with his opening monolog and sets up the audience for what is to come. He is more than a bit bitter about never getting to take over the role he is understudying. In this gig he is even more internally distressed since the lead is Jake (Craig Marker) a successful Hollywood no talent star hired to bolster the box office. It becomes a battle of ego and likeable Marin and Marker keep us entertained with Marin getting the slight edge in accolades.

For those not in the know, unheralded stage managers often rehearse the actors in preparation for the opening night. As bad luck would have it, Roxanne (Jessica Wortham) the stage manager was left stranded at the altar six years ago by Harry. Rebeck is a dedicated feminist and has created some memorable female characters. In this play Roxanne’s role seems to be an adjuvant to the male characters. Her diatribes just do not ring true and her actions are a stimulus rather than being symbiotic.

An off stage character is a stoned technician in control of the lights and the revolving stage. Her miscues are often hilarious and her non-control of Annie Smart’s marvelous revolving set can be considered as a fourth actor. Rebeck updates an ancient device of private conversations inadvertently being overheard by those who should not hear. If this were a Richard Brinsley Sheridan 17th century play there would be screen to hide listener. Rebeck uses the implausible open-mike to spill the beans to the off-stage listener.

Rebeck has great talent for writing subtle punch lines that bring a plethora of laughs. With the fine acting of Marin and Marker to deliver those lines, this play is well worth seeing. But, once again the set almost takes the cake and I might suggest that San Jose Rep commission a play to match the set. Enough said, this 95 minute play is well worth a visit to the South Bay.

Kedar K. Adour, MD

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