Roxanne is a sensible woman. All stage managers are. She wears a comfortable purple hoodie and a headset. She knows where every chair is marked onstage and the timing of every light cue. When a phone rings during a rehearsal, she sharply calls out, “Cell phone! Cell phone!” She scolds actors for eating prop bananas during rehearsal.
So we rejoice when, in The Understudy, Theresa Rebeck’s backstage comedy at the Roundabout, Roxanne is thrown entirely off-kilter by the sudden appearance of her actor ex-fiancé, Harry. Usually so collected, Roxanne is transformed by Harry’s prickly charm into an irritable wreck throughout an arduous pickup rehearsal for the Broadway production of an undiscovered play by Kafka. Why should we be glad that Harry’s return turns Roxanne’s orderly world upside down? Because Roxanne is played by Julie White, theater’s most accomplished purveyor of barely restrained hysteria, and to watch White play Roxanne falling to pieces—and then pulling herself back together—is the great pleasure of The Understudy.
White’s loopy voice rises in panic and falls into sorrow, just as her hands nervously fly up to tie her hair into a ponytail, pull it free, and tie it up again. She’s the best of a thoroughly excellent trio, rounded out by Justin Kirk as the talented Harry, and Mark-Paul Gosselaar as Jake, the Hollywood action star for whom a bitter Harry is the understudy. All three expertly patch over the holes in Rebeck’s occasionally thin script, while handling the show’s well-written, soulful conclusion with grace. And director Scott Ellis makes great hay of the ridiculous, yet oh-so-believable, idea of Kafka on Broadway, complete with vertiginous sets, overwrought music cues, and onstage precipitation. But the heart of The Understudy is Julie White and her carefully modulated performance as a woman completely losing it. Long may she flip out.