Message from the Artistic Director: The Understudy

Posted on: October 9th, 2009 by Todd Haimes

For many years, I have been hoping to bring Theresa Rebeck and her work to Roundabout, and I’m thrilled to finally have this opportunity to share her wit and wisdom with you through The Understudy. Theresa has long been one of our most prolific and gifted contemporary playwrights. What sets Theresa apart is not just the simple humanity of her characters and the impeccable structure in each individual play, but the scope of her work and her no-fear approach to tackling different genres. She has written the comedies Spike Heels and Bad Dates, the modernized Greek tragedy The Water’s Edge, the thriller Mauritius, and the post-9/11 political satire Omnium Gatherum, co-authored with Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. While so many writers are easily pigeon-holed, Theresa continues to be absolutely surprising with each new project, defying definition while maintaining high quality. This is no easy feat, but Theresa pulls it off with aplomb.

The Understudy could be considered Theresa’s “backstage” play. The story takes us into rehearsal for a hit Broadway show, in which a hot action movie star (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) is trying to make his mark and the new understudy’s (Justin Kirk) tangled past with the stage manager (Rebeck veteran and Tony-winner Julie White) leads to trouble both hilarious and heart-breaking. Best of all, the play they’re working on is a long-lost Franz Kafka masterpiece. Needless to say, though no one morphs into a giant cockroach, this simple rehearsal gets very complicated.

Director Scott Ellis (Roundabout’s Associate Artistic Director) has been with this play from the very beginning, when he staged a reading of it here in May of 2008. My artistic partnership with Scott has long been one of the most rewarding in my career. With work at Roundabout including Streamers, Twelve Angry Men, 1776, and She Loves Me, Scott is always a strong guiding force for a production, and I know that he will bring ingenuity to the funny, fantastical world that Theresa has created in The Understudy.

Bringing you new plays from established playwrights is an important part of Roundabout’s mission, and it gives me great pleasure to be able to share the newest work from one of our best modern writers on the Laura Pels Theatre’s stage. With a new play, it is always particularly interesting to hear your thoughts on the production, so I hope that you’ll continue to share your opinions with me on this blog.

I look forward to seeing you at the theater!

Todd Haimes

Related Categories:
2009-2010 Season, The Understudy

  1. Basil Whiting

    October 18, 2009

    My wife and I just saw “The Understudy” and were standing and cheering with the rest of the audience at the end. Bittersweet repartee, crackling writing, absolutely faultless casting, fabulous acting, wonderful staging (into the audience), hilarity with bitterness. All three principals were spot on, but for my money, the show is slightly more Justin Kirk’s Harry than Jake’s surprisingly thoughtful stud or Roxanne’s anxious stage manager. Harry is just wonderfully bitter and funny, all angles and jerky motion, with asides to the audience, the better actor both within the play and on the stage (which Jake and Roxanne come to acknowledge). They guys get to respect each other and Roxanne has some choices to make between them. The interplay with the Kafka play and the absent but willfully erratic dopehead in the control booth raise a few deeper questions, mostly (thankfully?) not deeply explored in what is, after all, a comedy with bite. How great of Roundabout to do this so well! Bravo!

  2. edward franklin

    October 21, 2009

    My wife and I together with our 19 year old grandson saw Understudy last night, and were euphoric when we rose to our feet for the curtain call, joining almost the entire audience in cheering wildly in celebration of a rare theater experience. It is hilarious but unlike even the best TV sitcoms it rings true and provides fodder for real thought. I endorse Basil Whiting’s trenchant review except that if I had to give either of the male leads an edge I would choose Gosselaar whose assignment is a bit more challenging. All three actors are superb and the direction is flawless. The expensive set may be a bit over the top and probably not necessary but at least it did not detract.

  3. Dorothy Samel

    November 17, 2009

    You hit another one out of the park with this play — loved it!! (Now I know I could’ve been a stage manager, if nothing else — part den mother, part psychiatrist, part general). Had early dinner sitting a planter away from 2/3 of the cast at Havana Central (the boys plus another guy) made it a complete NY experience. Great time, as always.



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