‘The Understudy’ at Everyman Theatre

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Are you sick and tired of yet another big-budget Hollywood action-adventure film with angry tornados, humongous sharks, or killer asteroids? Are you sick and tired of yet another celebrity persona sucking up all the sunshine while the rest of humanity grovels in the dark? Are you sick and tired of the one percent making so much money that they behave as if they live in an alternative universe without poverty, war, disease, and death? Are you so sick and tired that the only thing left to do is … laugh?

Clinton Brandhagen (Harry) and Danny Gavigan (Jake). Photo by Stan Barouh.

Clinton Brandhagen (Harry) and Danny Gavigan (Jake). Photo by Stan Barouh.

Then Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre has the show for you. Theresa Rebeck’s The Understudy opened this week to a chorus of satiric laughs and biting, insightful one-liners. With a tightly drawn story and easily recognizable characters, The Understudy takes its audience into the backstage world of a Broadway show; and before you groan, “Oh no, not another theatre piece about a theatre piece!” it is important to know that the Broadway show we’re about to see is a Kafka and this backstage is the underbelly of the theatrical world.

Everyman company member Clinton Brandhagen plays Harry, the understudy in a two-person Broadway show based on Kafka’s The Castle, or maybe it’s the Trial. It really doesn’t make a difference: it’s Kafka and very few things could be stranger on Broadway than anything even remotely related to Kafka.

Mr. Brandhagen plays Harry with a down to earth, down on his luck, “but I’m not bitter,” enthusiasm that immediately wins the audience over. We’ve all been there, and anyone who has had to compete with a roomful of gloss knows what it feels like. Brandhagen’s Harry is hardworking and honest and full of faults: he just cannot compete in a celebrity-filled world where hype and hip means more than skill and creativity.

Harry is understudy to Jake, played with rising star good looks by Danny Gavigan. Gavigan negotiates with great skill the complexities of Jake’s character, coming on both arrogantly stuck up at the beginning and then vulnerable and open to discovery by story’s end. You see, Jake has just made a Hollywood blockbuster action-adventure film; so he thinks that he has finally arrived at “true” actor status, i.e., he’s made it. Having made it, he deserves the utmost in respect, unlike those groveling understudies who make their way in the world howling and grunting. His relationship with Harry and Jake’s transformation are one of the highlights of the show.

Then we have Beth Hylton as the feisty Roxanne, the stage manager (“Feisty” would be a good word to describe Roxanne under normal circumstances), but The Understudys world of Kafkaesque male/female relations, Roxanne becomes stage manager as doppelganger. You see, Harry is the man who walked out on Roxanne two weeks before their marriage and disappeared with nary a word of explanation. She’s finally seeing him again after six years. You don’t have work too hard to imagine the emotional turmoil our normally dependably “feisty” stage manager, Roxanne, is in. She’s ready to eat more than bear; she’s ready for Grizzly, and Ms. Hylton gives Roxanne the full range of highs and lows, all the while keeping this bizarre evening in a Broadway rehearsal on Kafka headed in the right direction.

Directed by Joseph W. Ritsch, Rebeck’s The Understudy keeps its focus where it should be: on the story of three professionals doing their best to keep their careers and lives on track and at least a wee bit purposeful. The production’s pacing is spot-on, and the clarity of its tale sharp as a diamond.

Beth Hylton (Roxanne). Photo by Stan Barouh.

Beth Hylton (Roxanne). Photo by Stan Barouh.

Ritsch’s production team performed fabulously. Scenic Designer Daniel Ettinger has created some Kafkaesque sets to die for with each being a case study in point-of-view gone askew. His sets are only made visually more stunning by Jay A. Herzog’s lighting effects, with Neil McFadden’s sound and music effects adding just the right amount of spookiness. Finally, Kathleen Geldard’s costumes serve each character well.

Everyman Theatre’s tagline is “Great Stores Well Told,” and that could not be more in evidence than with its production of The Understudy. Its ensemble of three talented and well synced actors has taken Rebeck’s solidly constructed story of the three hard working professionals and brought it to life without hyperbole or glitz. As a result, that oh-so-crucial connection between audience and performer carries the day. We are not wowed by the theatrics, or stunned by the depths of despair; instead, we are engaged by the insight and the sheer humanity that the theatre can bring.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.

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The Understudy plays through September 28, 2014 at Everyman Theatre-315 West Fayette Street in Baltimore, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 752-2208, or purchase them online.

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