The adjective “Kafkaesque” gets tossed around a lot, but rarely has it applied more literally than in The Understudy, Theresa Rebeck’s sly show business comedy that’s currently receiving a tart and appealing production by Amphibian Stage Productions. The three characters –– two actors and a stage manager –– are not only rehearsing the Broadway version of a long-lost Franz Kafka play, but they’ve also found themselves trapped in –– you guessed it –– an absurd world where fate and identity are ever-changing. Even the Amphibian’s gloomy set of the Kafka production seems to be mocking the characters, with wall panels, lights, and sounds that appear and disappear for no good reason but to keep already nervous theater people on the brink of a breakdown. The victory of director Rene Moreno and his Amphibian cast is that gentle humor and sympathetic performances are not sacrificed to knee-jerk Kafkaesque despair, though playwright Rebeck can’t seem to decide how deeply she wants to explore the script’s potentially grim themes of personal and professional futility.
At a brisk 90 minutes with no intermission, The Understudy offers a real-time glimpse of the backstage collision between art and commerce. Harry (Chuck Huber) is a sharp-tongued actor with a few TV credits on his resumé and a firm commitment to the creative risk-taking that the theater world offers. He has accepted the job of understudy to Jake (Carman Lacivita), a good-natured if not terribly cerebral action film star looking to score some artistic cred by performing in the aforementioned three-hour Kafka play. But there’s a catch –– Jake himself serves as understudy to an unseen actor named Bruce, an even bigger movie star whose attachment to the play has guaranteed a big-budget Broadway mounting but has also subjected the whole project to the infuriating whims of a Hollywood ego. As Harry and Jake quibble over line readings, blocking, and motivation, they enrage weary stage manager Roxanne (Sarah Koestner), whose nerves have already been frayed by Harry’s last-minute involvement –– the pair of them, it seems, were engaged to be married years ago until Harry abandoned her before the ceremony without a word of explanation. To complicate this fraught (and rather far-fetched) situation, an offstage set technician with a love for high-octane cannabis keeps confusing her cues so that walls slide, mood music erupts, and lights dazzle and dim at the most inopportune times.
In The Understudy, playwright Rebeck gives us the not very shocking news that Broadway is a crazy funhouse maze where reputations rise and fall as inexplicably as last-minute production decisions are made. But by setting the show at a late-night rehearsal where tempers flare and careers are on the line, she has chosen a credible pressure-cooker scenario that gives the proceedings urgency, even if the complications feel a little familiar. Thankfully, director Moreno keeps his actors firmly on the comic side of Kafka’s famous tragicomic mood, so we are never asked to believe the characters are undergoing the profound artistic and spiritual crises that the playwright flirts with in her dialogue. Huber invests a potentially snobby and embittered man with a generous dose of self-deprecation; Harry never judges his colleagues more harshly than he judges himself. Playing a virile action movie star trying to demonstrate that he really gets this whole Kafka thing, Lacivita resists the cheap temptation to turn his character into a soulless lunkhead –– Jake’s sincere desire to stretch himself artistically is warmly demonstrated. Just as the real life job of stage manager can be a thankless task, Koestner’s role as the anal-retentive tyrant tapped to keep artistic egos in check runs the risk of becoming one-note, especially with the baggage of romantic resentment in tow. But Koestner relaxes Roxanne’s brittle defenses at all the right moments, showing us the vulnerable layer beneath her snarly pose.
Amphibian’s staging of The Understudy works as smart entertainment despite the script’s awkward contrivances and strained literary ambitions. The very job of the understudy might have been created for a Kafka short story –– the idea of an actor who’s hired to pour time and talent into a production that he or she will probably never appear in must have tickled the author’s existentialist fancy. Even when the playwright overreaches in her pursuit of Kafkaesque irony, the ’phibs cast manages to keep all the weirdness grounded and utterly relatable.
Thru Aug 5 at Fort Worth Community Arts Center, 1300 Gendy St, FW. $20-25. 817-923-3012.