Seattle Public Theater's current production of "The Understudy" by Theresa Rebeck and directed by Kelly Kitchens is a look behind the scenes and into the dark corners of theater production, complete with envy, back-biting, the uncomfortable overlap of personal relationships with professional desires and the fear of vulnerability playing against the fear of not going after the thing you most desire.
It's also based on the premise of a company performing a lost work of Kafka, and the bleed-through between a Kafka-created world of impersonality and despair, and the real world that doesn't care one way or the other what happens to the individual.
Based on that description, you might consider that an evening working a suicide hotline might be more cheerful than seeing this play. But you'd be wrong.
This play is marvelous, both bitingly, bracingly funny and poignant in turns, and, as usual, SPT brings it home in fine form. Harry (John Ulman) takes the stage first, showing up for his first day of rehearsal as an understudy for the Kafka play. He shows up with a bang -- literally! -- announcing his arrival with a prop gun he has stolen from backstage.
He has a tendency to run his thoughts together into unfinished sentences, but we gradually learn that he has a theatrical actor's scorn for big Hollywood pictures, laced with bitterness for not having been cast in them. He sees his understudy role as a big break.
However, he is soon cut down to size when he encounters disappointed actress turned stage manager, Roxanne (Brenda Joyner), his ex-fiancée whom he left without a word of explanation two weeks before the wedding. Harry is to understudy one of the stars of the show, Jake (Mike Dooly) who has sex appeal and charm to spare and happens to have been the star of the big action picture that rejected Harry. As Roxanne puts it to Harry, "Let me put it in theater terms so you'll understand. Bruce (the biggest star of Kafka's play who is an unseen presence) is Richard III, Jake is Henry V, and you are spear carrier #7."
At one point Harry says, "I think we're all allowed a little moment of private rage." And these three have rage to spare, both at a heartless impersonal system and at one another.
We don't see Jake's rage at first, until we begin to realize from his conversations on his cell phone with his agent that he is desperate to escape his type casting and do "real" roles in movies, but has very little chance of it.
We never get to see the Kafka play in its entirety but through the bits of rehearsal we get a sense of art echoing the real lives of these actors, stuck in a brutal world out to thwart them and worse, depersonalize them.
The rehearsals also give the three characters a different context for getting to know one another. Gradually Harry's disdain and bitterness towards Jake dissolves in his understanding of Jake's passion for Kafka, while Jake's certainty that Harry is a second-rate has been becomes respect and finally camaraderie as he witnesses Harry's acting chops.
Both men bear witness to Roxanne's sadness and frustration, admiring her sure hand as stage manager, even as she proves herself as a talent to be reckoned with on stage as well. Their discovery of one another as they begin to allow themselves to be seen and vulnerable has a sweetness to it.
With multiple interruptions and tricky interpersonal dynamics, a mysterious and unseen techie named Laura adds to the confusion by running all the wrong cues, sending Roxanne flailing around the theater. Despite this, Harry, Jake and Roxanne tentatively begin to establish a real creative union of minds and talent. Their excitement about the play infuses us in the audience and makes us care about the success of the play. Even as they receive the last bad news that the show is being canceled, they give us a glimpse of the hope of human connection and creativity against all odds.
Much of the show is wickedly funny. The set (designed by Richard Schaefer) consists of what look like wood pallet panels along the back wall and on the floor, with various platforms and lighting instruments strewn about and a work lamp burning at center, but the actors use the entire theater as their set, including the audience and the parts of the theater out of sight.
At one point, Roxanne is storming around, cursing at Harry and trying to get Laura on track. She storms right out the theater door and we hear her yelling all the way around behind us outside the theater, past the ticket office, and back in the other side still ranting. Harry during one of the rehearsals is doing a sad and moving bit, shivering with cold, saying, "The light is gone..." in a frail voice, but then adds, "No, really, the light is gone. Are we in the right cue?" There are even a few little clever in jokes about Kafka.
Don't let the mention of Kafka keep you away from this engaging production, which ultimately leaves us hopeful and happy about human possibility.
"The Understudy" runs through Feb. 17 at Seattle Public Theater, 7312 W. Greenlake Dr. N. in Seattle. For info or tickets, call 206-524-1300 or visit www.seattlepublictheater.org.