The Understudy at Westport Playhouse

 “Welcome to Katz Reviews. This is Ed Katz of Katnip Marketing- marketing consultant by day; theater and film critic by night- bringing my weekly review segment, Katz Reviews, here for you on WICC 600.

I enjoy being able to give a show a really good review. Especially when it is local- like this one. Westport Country Playhouse’s current production of Theresa Rebeck’s comedy, ‘The Understudy,” is simply terrific. And it is seriously funny.

By that I mean some of the funniest moments happen when the play has its most serious scenes. I give a lot of credit to playwright Rebeck, director David Kennedy and the talented cast of three: Eric Bryant, Brett Dalton and Andrea Syglowski.

l to r: Brett Dalton, Andrea Syglowski, Eric Bryant

The last show at Westport Playhouse that knocked my socks off was ‘Grounded’- last year. ‘The Understudy’ succeeds on several levels- it is a play about actors rehearsing for a play based on the works of Franz Kafka… and their lives begin to mirror what usually happens to Kafka’s characters- which generally isn’t good (if you happen to be one of those characters).

Someone once said a playwright needs to torture their characters- in part to make the audience care about them, in part to give them bigger obstacles to overcome… which sets the conflicts that are the source of drama.

The three characters’ insignificance is a key theme in ‘The Understudy’ (both in their play-within-a-play characters and in their characters’ lives working in the theater industry).

When events out of the control of all 3 characters take place- off stage- it makes all 3 of them feel insignificant as they are powerless to change them- and that is what tortures these characters. As director David Kennedy said, “Unlike in life, in art being powerless is a source of humor… being overwhelmed by things you cannot control.”

The story set up here is Harry gets a role as an understudy for this Kafka play being rehearsed for Broadway. The play’s two stars, “Bruce” (never seen or disclosed but they imply it is Bruce Willis) and Jake, a successful- but not as successful- action movie star played by Brett Dalton (in another meta moment, he is, in real life, a TV star on ABC’s ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’) and Harry and Jake are rehearsing with their stage manager, Roxanne, played with great comic frustration by Andrea Syglowski.  Her interactions with the unseen character of “Laura” are terrific.

Andrea Syglowski and Eric Bryant

The twists? Andrea used to be engaged to Harry and, two weeks before their wedding, he left her without a word. So the two of them have… “issues.” Then add handsome and successful Jake to the mix and force resentful Harry to have to work with him, while Jake probes Harry to find out what happened between him and Roxanne.

Watching how Harry and Jake work together and form a like/hate relationship is one of the most enjoyable aspects to the play and it was fun to find that both Bryant and Dalton studied acting together, as their chemistry is tangible.

l to r: Brett Dalton & Eric Bryant; production photos: Carol Rosegg

The beauty here is that, while the play is funny it also gives you plenty to think about.

If I tell you the funniest line in the play might be when one character yells, “Get in the truck,” I promise it won’t ruin it for you when the moment happens. But that isn’t the best moment in the play. Wait for the dance scenes. Rarely has a dance scene in a straight play conveyed so much so well while being so much fun to watch.

The script, acting and direction are nearly flawless as are Andrew Boyce’s sets and Matthew Richards’ lighting and I give ‘The Understudy’ the elusive 5 stars out of 5. Don’t miss this exceptional dramatic comedy! It’s the best local production I have seen in years. ‘The Understudy’ runs at Westport Country Playhouse through September 1st. For more info visit Westport Playhouse dot org.

A note for those who are hearing impaired: My father-in-law said the hearing aid system at Westport Playhouse worked extremely well!

Catch my reviews right here this time each week and on my Facebook page and website, Katz Reviews dot com,  where you will find all my WICC 600 reviews. This is Ed Katz talking theater for WICC 600!”