Fifty years ago I saw a one-act play by Tad Mosel called “Impromptu,” which made a great impression on me because of its clever conflating of illusion and reality. In it, four actors show up for an audition, but no director ever appears, so they’re forced to improvise.
WHERE: Schenectady Civic Players, 12 S. Church St.
WHEN: Through March 30
HOW MUCH: $17
MORE INFO: 382-2081, or www.civicplayers.org
Of course, that little script has metaphorical (metaphysical?) overtones, which I thought of on Friday during Schenectady Civic Players’ strong production of “The Understudy,” Theresa Rebeck’s funny treatise on the human condition.
“The Understudy” is about three theater folks and an unseen lighting/sound god, Laura. Roxanne (Cristine M. Loffredo) is stage managing a wacky play by Kafka, featuring a self-absorbed, B-list movie actor named Jake (Joel A. Bramer), who is understudying the star. Harry (Michael Schaefer) has been sent to understudy Jake, and it’s Roxanne’s job to familiarize him with the blocking.
But Harry is Roxanne’s former fiancé, having left her, without explanation, six years before. She soldiers on, emotional wounds notwithstanding, as does buff Jake, who can’t believe the schlub picked to back him. But if Jake is lucky, he won’t be in the play much longer anyway because he’s waiting for a Hollywood action-movie offer.
Plays about life in the theater abound (think “Noises Off”), and Rebeck has fun with dim Harry, foul-mouthed Roxanne, and preening Jake. But there’s pathos in the humor.
For example, stage manager Roxanne is not in charge at all: Laura sends in set pieces arbitrarily and cues the wrong lights and music. Roxanne is also still angry and sad at being abandoned. Jake is expendable beefcake, at the mercy of agents and directors. And Harry, who has desperately changed his name on his Equity card, can’t seem to get past being an understudy for an understudy.
Mary Kozlowski’s set design of odd pieces for an odd play is spot-on, and it’s lit well by Jeffrey Scott.
Director Mark Stephens knows how to mine dark comedy: listen to his curtain speech, read his director’s note and remember his comic turn as the cynical Elf in “Santaland Diaries.”
Schaefer’s resonant and clear voice is a pleasure, and the subdued tone that he and Stephens are going for here generally works, though I wished occasionally for a little more physical energy between bits.
Bramer’s Jake is a delicious mix of metrosexual male and Valley Girl in the early scenes, mispronouncing “Kafka” while spouting memorized bits of info he has probably found on Wikipedia. I’m not so sure Jake has the emotional depths that Bramer subsequently plumbs, but that tonal shift is not fatal to the humor in the long run.
Loffredo beautifully paces the arc of Roxanne’s confidence, frustration, heartbreak and recovery — a seamless performance.
All three do fine work in their monologues, too, revealing what a painful struggle it can often be just to put one foot in front of the other. The show’s final moment is, therefore, poignant: a waltz for three dancers, as the invisible Laura plays the tune from the tech booth above.