Playwright Theresa Rebeck offers a funny
Valentine to dramatic art with The Understudy.
"The show must go on...." Few theatregoers realize what it takes to make that old cliché come true. One thing that makes many a show go on when it really shouldn't is a well-rehearsed understudy. When a lead performer can't take the stage, another actor boldly steps in. It's all kind of heroic, actually. Theresa Rebeck’s newest play, The Understudy, set during a Broadway understudy rehearsal for a fictional play based on the writings of Franz Kafka, displays her affection for actors' willingness to shed emotional blood for our benefit.
Rebeck has created a lot of jobs for understudies. In fact, the Ohio-born dramatist may be one of the best dramatic writers in America who no one knows—or no one knows that they know. She’s certainly one of the most prolific. Over the last 20 years, Rebeck’s sharp, ascerbic comedies, including Spike Heels, Loose Knit, Bad Dates, the co-written 2003 Pulitzer finalist Omnium Gatherum, last season’s Broadway hit Mauritius, and this summer’s Our House, have filled the country’s stages. Simultaneously, her award-winning scripts for NYPD Blue and many other TV series have filled America’s small screens. (Those experiences prompted the Brooklyn-based mother of two to write Free Fire Zone, a how-to—or how not-to—book about navigating the treacherous world of Hollywood scriptwriting.) In 2008, Random House made her a published novelist when they released her sassy and satiric novel about the culture of celebrity called Three Girls and Their Brother. This fall, Rebeck will see her 12th play receive a major New York production when The Understudy opens the 2009-10 season at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre.
Harry, the title character in Rebeck’s comedy, is a bitter, veteran stage actor who will be understudying a hot new Hollywood action movie hero type in a hit play adapted from the work of the Eastern European surreal expressionist Franz Kafka. The third character in The Understudy is the stage manager, who like all who hold her position, is responsible for running understudy rehearsals—and she just happens to be Harry’s ex-fiancé, who he hasn’t seen since he abandoned her shortly before the altar years before.
Rebeck spoke to Front & Center about the play, which Roundabout’s associate artistic director Scott Ellis directs when it opens this fall.
FRONT & CENTER: You’ve had plays produced all over New York City, but this is your first at Roundabout. How did that happen?
THERESA REBECK: I’ve always admired Todd Haimes and what he does with Roundabout and I was very fortunate that when [artistic director] Nicky Martin asked me to bring The Understudy to Williamstown, he’d already sent it to director Scott Ellis at Roundabout, who liked it very much and was interested in working on it. Then there’s this Monday night playreading series for Roundabout subscribers, and Scott asked if I’d like to do that. I thought it was a terrific opportunity to see it in front of an audience and hear what we had. That gave me a chance to work on the script for a month before we began rehearsals in Massachusetts. So Todd got a chance to see it and came up to Williamstown and loved it. Then it was really easy for us to commit to each other in a very protected way. Actually, it’s never easy. But it felt easy.
Do you feel The Understudy is very different from your previous work? It feels different to me—in its direct address, its use of a play-within-a-play, its questioning of reality?
It feels different to me in that it’s a tenderhearted play and I don’t achieve that always. I do feel that the play is about disappointment and joy—and there is a lot of love in it that made me feel safe enough to float around in some of those issues.
A common theme in much of your work, and one that plays a prominent role in The Understudy, is a concern about the rights and respect artists deserve but rarely attain in our society.
I worry about the place of the artist in our culture. If you were to ask me, I’d say capitalism and art don’t always mix; the interface of business and art is problematic. I’m a very passionate supporter of the theatre. I’m actually one of those people who say, “The world would be a better place if people went to the theatre more often.” It’s an absurd thing to say, but theatre can be a moving experience to people on the best levels: it brings a community together; people are called into empathy; and they’re asked to have some kind of spiritual or psychological response to this communal event.
I’m yearning for the theatre to bring more people in. I feel my stuff gets too categorized as commercial in a way that’s sort of dismissive. In fact you’ve got to invite audiences in. If they’re not coming we’re all in trouble. I do not think there’s a very coherent discussion about art and class in America. Theatre’s a populist form at its core but there’s a notion that it’s an elitist form. I don’t think it is.
You have a PhD in Victorian melodrama, which was the popular art form of its day.
It was really fun to study it. It was interesting to me as a playwright because critics often talk about that time as a “lost period of theatre.” But people were going to the theatre four or five times a week—they went all the time and were famous for that. As a living playwright, that seems like heaven to me.
Your current play, The Understudy seems very much a love letter to the theatre, as opposed to previous plays like Family of Mann which felt more like a hand grenade lobbed at the entertainment industry.
This play is very much about love—love of art, about people whose lives are defined by their passion for storytelling. The character of Jake, the movie actor, has so much love for Kafka. There’s a real delight and passion for this odd German expressionist and the play starts to partake of that joy and revels in the oddness of art. The play is very affectionate toward all three characters.
You seem to do a lot research after you choose a subject. For example, you said in an interview that you did a lot research into stamp collecting for Mauritius. How did you get into Kafka?
I did re-read a lot of Kafka. But I had read a lot of his work. In college I just loved his stuff, the eccentricity of it. Then there was a point about four or five years ago when my husband and I were going to Prague, which is like “Kafka Central,” so I read a big biography and fell in love with his story all over again. The Understudy is about someone’s affection for that crazy guy more than it is about that crazy guy. There’s a kind of terror and weariness in Kafka that the play partakes of but in a much more affectionate tone.
What inspired this play? An image, an experience, a fascination with understudies?
It kind of spun out of Harry’s character. I was writing a monologue for a friend, an actor who was in a bitter rage about his own inability to have a coherent life. So I was kind of writing this monologue and it started going in these crazy directions. I am interested in actors. I find them funny and frightening and heartbreaking because show business—theatre, film, television—is very hard on the spirit. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people about how you survive this business and be healthy. Not everybody does. So I’m well acquainted with the bitterness of certain members of our community and the buoyancy of others. No one has it as bad as actors do. They have to audition all the time and take direct rejection. Then we still expect them to embody the human spirit in all its different dimensions—and on a dime. It’s very hard on the heart.
Also, actors can begin to feel like life is far too defined—and this is where I’ve worked to keep the play on its Kafka track—by enormous, mysterious forces that are way beyond their control. Certainly it feels like that being a theatre artist. There’s that Kafka level of absurdity in your day-to-day living.
Is that why you keep “Bruce,” the unseen mega-moviestar who Jake understudies, offstage?
Yes, it heightens the sense that there are unseen forces offstage whose actions will affect these actors’ lives very directly. You just don’t know what they’re doing out there.
So you always loved Kafka and you wrote a monologue about a bitter understudy and then what happened?
There are a lot of things crawling around my brain and I let them all crawl around and when one of them reaches a point where it becomes very insistent, then I write it. Edward Albee says he thinks about something for years, and then he writes it. I’m more in that school. I had been thinking about this play for a long time. I had written this little monologue and I thought there is something there. It also revolved around that joke Harry tells, “Get in the truck.” Sometimes, I don’t think jokes are trivial events. I see jokes as very serious statements. There are, in fact, screenwriters out there being paid millions of dollars to write “Get in the truck.” That is something that irks me on a deep psychological level.
So I had written this rambling monologue about that and at the end I suddenly realized this guy was understudying. Once I had that nugget, I thought, “You should write a play.” Then I was walking down the street with a neighbor and I started saying I think I’m going to write this play about an understudy and he’s going to be working on a Kafka play and it all just sort of erupted from me. Then I didn’t do anything for a long time.
There’s also the issue of film acting vs. stage acting that your characters represent. Harry, who’s supposed to be the experienced, classically trained stage actor, can’t always do things Jake, the Hollywood hunk, can.
It’s just that Harry doesn’t know how to handle a gun well. With some actors, they’ll come into an audition and you can just see they wear their body in a different way. Harry, though he’s a wonderful actor, is someone who wears his body like failure in a way that Jake doesn’t. I found this working in Los Angeles with all those actors. Most of those guys are really buff. They work out at the gym a lot and I’m sure they practice with guns. They go to shooting ranges and learn how to use guns, pocket them right. That kind of confidence is something that Harry doesn’t have.
Now that The Understudy has been produced at Williamstown, do you feel it’s finished? Or like Tennessee Williams, do you never stop tinkering with your plays?
I do a lot of rewriting. Edward Albee says “I never rewrite,” and he’s so proud of it. I could never do that. I rewrite all the time.
The writer who introduces the volume of your published plays says they always ask big questions. What’s the big question of The Understudy
[lengthy pause] Can art survive culture?
That is huge.
There. Pretty good, right?