January 13, 2010

"The Understudy" is Too Underwhelming

There were far more young people mixed in among the usual grayheads than I had expected to see at the The Understudy, which ends its run at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre this weekend.  And the reason for the relative youth surge became clear at the end of the show when the twentysomething woman sitting next to me turned to her date.  “Hurry,” she told him as he struggled into his coat.  “I want to get a photo with Mark-Paul.”

Mark-Paul is Mark-Paul Gosselaar, the hunky TV star who, although he is now 35, will forever be known to the generation that came of age in the ‘90s as the tween heartthrob Zack on the show “Saved By the Bell” and who is making his stage debut in The Understudy (click here to read an interview he gave Broadway.com about the experience).  Ironically, the play, written by the prolific playwright Theresa Rebeck, centers around a stage manager (Julie White) who is rehearsing an actor (Justin Kirk) who has been hired to cover the part of  a Hollywood star (Gosselaar) making his stage debut.

The migration of Hollywood actors—many of them stage neophytes—to Broadway and off-Broadway has been one of the big theater stories in recent years (click here to see a recent exchange on The Clyde Fitch Report website) and so once again, Rebeck has touched on a hot topic. The problem is that’s all Rebeck has done when what you—or at least I—want her to do is grab hold of the subject and shake loose some fresh insight.  Instead what we get is an extended “Saturday Night Live” skit.

This isn’t a total dis.  “SNL” can be amusing and even astute.  But its skits don’t go on for 90 minutes.  And they don’t pretend to be more than they are. The Understudy's cast works hard (White is typically game, Kirk’s smirk works for his character and Gosselaar more than holds his own) but the plot is contrived and too many of the jokes fall flat.  To make matters worse, gags are repeated over and over again.  I suppose the idea is that they’ll seem funnier with each repetition but, alas, that’s not what happens. 

Scott Ellis is one of my favorite—and one of the New York theater's best—directors but he isn’t able to do much here either. The only person who looks to be having fun is set designer Alexander Dodge who got to create intentionally pretentious sets for the play-within-a-play: a production of a fictional long-lost work by Franz Kafka.

As I seem to say each time I write about her, I admire Rebeck.  She made her name in TV, writing for shows like “L.A. Law”, “NYPD Blue” and “Law & Order.”  And she could be making vanloads of money by continuing to write for television but she clearly loves theater and has thrown herself into writing plays—and into getting them produced. This is the third Rebeck show I’ve seen in the past 15 months. And if this were baseball, she’d be out. But this is theater so I’m just going to root for her to have more success next time she’s up at bat.

In the meantime, none of this mattered a lick to the Gosselaar fans who lined up outside a barricade in the cold to wait for him to come out and sign autographs.  I even saw him posing for a few photos. 

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