Show business deals in fables, and Theresa Rebeck deals in its foibles. The wise-cracking playwright has a sharp eye, and sharper ear, for the immature nonsense that makes the profession both frolicsome and infuriating for those in its clutches. (She created NBC series Smash.)
In “The Understudy,” now enjoying a fun and briskly-paced production at Lyndhurst under the auspices of M & M Performing Arts Company, the author posits Art and Commerce at opposite ends of the food chain. Guess which is the predator that feasts and which the easily-replaced plant life that gets eaten alive?
Directed crisply by Larry Schneider, the show runs Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday through July 26 in the Lyndhurst Carriage House Theater. The charming historic space (fully air-conditioned) benefits theatrically from a newly-installed stage at one end of what had been simply a large, open room. The so-called “black-box theater” dimensions afford a physical closeness between audience and actors you don’t experience in full-scale venues. (For tickets, call 1-888-71-TICKETS or visit http://www.lyndhurst.org.)
‘Bargain Basement Star’
In the course of a fitful rehearsal for a Broadway play, insecure actors Harry (Peter Lillo) and Jake (Michael Muldoon) lock horns — and lips — with jaded female stage manager Roxanne (Carly Jayne Lillo).
B-list movie actor Jake is both co-star with, and understudy for, the play’s headliner, whom we never see, but we hear a lot about him, none of it good. He is a Hollywood action-movie superstar pulling down a cool $22 million per film even though he’s “terrible.”
Talented but obscure Harry is the new understudy for Jake, a self-described “bargain basement star” coming off a blockbuster action movie for which he was paid $2.3 million for mouthing inspired dialogue like, “Get in the truck!”
Harry has a history with Roxanne she’s trying to forget and he’s trying to renew. He pulls neurotic Jake’s chain by insincerely praising his performance in the movie and in the play. In truth, Harry both resents and envies what he calls “talent-free” stars like Jake.
Hollywood Reputations Die Hard
Ms. Rebeck leaves little doubt what real-life celebrity she has in mind — and has an oh-so-low opinion of — by transparently naming the superstar simply Bruce, who is the target of takedowns about his insufferable egocentricity.
Those attuned to show biz gossip will appreciate her choice of name because Hollywood actors’ reputations for being difficult and unlikable tend to, you might say, die hard. “Bruce is a big star,” says Roxanne, “which means there’s always a problem… “
(Coincidentally, in a plausible case of life imitating art, Bruce Willis is due to star on Broadway this November in a stage version of Stephen King’s “Misery,” which was a hit 1990 movie. That makes the conceit at play in “The Understudy” uncannily timely.)
The play within the play a work of unspecified title by literary giant Franz Kafka. Ms. Rebeck uses his trademark themes of alienation and dehumanization to weave in handy metaphors about actors being treated like bugs (“Metamorphosis”) and being mocked psychologically and financially (“The Trial”).
Rest assured all of this is played out with her very light but blunt touch, in her entertainingly velvet-hammer style.
‘They Pay You Not to Act’
“You have no rights, you’re an actor,” is typical of how she drives home the life of the typical performer, who couldn’t earn $22 million in several lifetimes, let alone for a single movie. Here she is on the hapless plight of an understudy: “No one will see you, you don’t exist. They pay you not to act.”
The trio of actors bring plenty of energy and stage presence to their respective roles.
Peter Lillo once again displays his consistent knack for smooth and easily relatable portrayals. He opens the show solo on stage, pulling us in to the story by both addressing the audience and half-muttering to himself about the frustrations of his current station in life.
Tall and handsome Michael Muldoon — who is half of M & M with wife Melinda O’Brien — cuts a sleek figure on stage as self-absorbed and preening Jake, coolly attired in all black, neurotically checking his cellphone to see if he was “booked” for the big movie role he covets to climb out of his second-rank rut.
Mr. Muldoon is a polished performer who makes strong choices about his character that keep the audience engaged and entertained.
Forceful Feline of a Stage Manager
Roxanne is the foil and the compass for both of the frustrated men in her backstage life. Carly Jayne Lillo (Peter Lillo’s real-life spouse) is a forceful feline of a stage manager whose job it is to make sure even the most hapless actors always land on their feet.
When Roxanne lets down her hair in a poignant moment of vulnerability and emotional distress, Mr. Lillo’s acting chops are fully evident as she tugs at our heartstrings using art rather than artifice.
Theresa Rebeck does not spare in her cross-hairs the kind of theater-goer star-struck by seeing Hollywood names of mediocre talent on stage, yet less appreciative of great theater performed by gifted, no-name actors. One character bemoans the fact that “We care more about people coming in buses from New Jersey.”
And the zingers aimed at Bruce (who personifies crass Commerce) zip by with regularity: “Three hours of Kafka and they love it. Not because of Bruce. Bruce sucks in this play.” By the demanding yardstick of Theresa Rebeck, presumably her version of high praise for Bruce Willis in his upcoming “Misery” star turn on Broadway would be to proclaim that his performance “does not suck.” Neither will his paycheck.
The Understudy by Theresa Rebeck. With Carly Jayne Lillo Peter Lillo, Michael Muldoon*. Lyndhurst Carriage House Theater. Director, Larry Schneider. Stage Managers, Emmy Schwartz, Nan Weiss. Set Design & Construction, Floyd Gumble, Steve Aigner. Choreography, Jenn Haltmenn. Producers, Melinda O’Brien, Michael Muldoon. *Member of Actors Equity Association
For information about upcoming shows by M & M Performing Arts Company, visit http://www.MMPACI.com.
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