WILLIAMSTOWN - Trust Theresa Rebeck to find the humor in Franz Kafka. The "Law & Order" veteran has turned out plenty of murder stories and dark dramas, but she also wrote the hilarious "Bad Dates." Who better to turn the likes of "Metamorphosis" and "The Trial" into a laff riot?
And, in fact, that's what "The Understudy," zippily directed and sharply acted in its world premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, turns out to be: funny, funny, funny. Oh, and more than a little Kafkaesque, too.
Rebeck starts by imagining that a newly discovered lost masterpiece by Kafka, a two-man play full of paranoia, existential absurdity, and faceless oppression, has been brought to Broadway - with, naturally enough in the current climate, two big movie-star action heroes playing the roles. Now an understudy has arrived to rehearse with the beta-male of the famous pair, so that if the alpha guy is out, beta can move up and the understudy can go on.
"The Understudy" quickly adds a few twists to the mix: Harry, the understudy, tells the audience in the first of many hilarious soliloquies that he auditioned for the action movie that the beta guy, Jake, has just starred in. Not only that, but we soon learn that the stage manager for this production, Roxanne, was Harry's fiancee until he skipped town six years before.
Sure, it's all very neat - bordering on too neat - but it's also so slickly constructed and snappily written that you can't help admiring its very precision. Besides, Rebeck takes this basic setup and runs with it, creating 90 minutes of show-biz satire, acerbic banter between the sexes, and fleeting glimpses of larger meaning that all add up to a very satisfying entertainment indeed.
Julie White, who won a Tony for "The Little Dog Laughed" and was also memorably hysterical in the Huntington's production of "Bad Dates" a few seasons back, was originally scheduled to play Roxanne, until (ironically, given the play's amusing take on Hollywood vs. Broadway) she landed a movie role. It's easy to imagine how brilliantly biting she would have been. But Kristen Johnston, best known from TV's "3rd Rock from the Sun," brings her own caustic strength and no-nonsense humor to the part. Though she had to call for a line at one point in Thursday's opening performance, she's generally an assured and commanding comedic presence at the center of the play's chaos - everything this stage manager should be.
Reg Rogers, meanwhile, is simply brilliant as Harry. Rebeck writes some fiendishly difficult speeches, full of half-completed sentences, self-interruptions, and meandering thoughts, and Rogers maneuvers through them with impeccable timing and effortless grace - even when he's negotiating a lightning shift from playing Harry to playing Harry-playing-in-Kafka.
Bradley Cooper is equally charming as Jake. At first the handsome lug seems simply what you'd expect - action hero trying to be a real actor - but then Cooper uncovers the layers that Rebeck's script provides, showing us that Jake and Harry are not so far apart, either in talent or in the degree of control over their fate, as they might have imagined.
And if "control over their fate" is starting to sound a bit, well, Kafkaesque, that's no accident. What may be funniest about "The Understudy" is the way Rebeck uses her imaginary (but spot-on) Kafka play to satirize dark dramatic visions of powerless humans adrift in a hostile universe and, at the same time, to mirror her own equally dark but highly comedic vision of powerless actors adrift in a hostile business.
Set designer Alexander Dodge and lighting designer Kenneth Posner skillfully abet this double-edged plan, with a deceptively simple bare-stage opening that whirls and flashes and expands into a wonderful parody of Broadway special-effects excess. Sound designer Obadiah Evans helps out, too, not just with crashing thunder but with eerie-silly music for the play-within-a-play.
All this, and a dance number too? Even Gregor Samsa would have to smile.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.