Sunday, August 19, 2018

Kafka Played For Laughs

The Understudy -- Westport Country Playhouse -- Through September 1

Brett Dalton, Andrea Syglowski and Eric Bryant. Photos by Carol Rosegg

When we see a play or a musical, we seldom are aware of what has gone on behind the scenes before the curtain rises on opening night. Most theatergoers are not privy to the various rehearsals, including the laborious and time consuming tech rehearsal (when, among other things, the sound and lighting cues are worked out) that brings the production to life (or doesn’t, as the case may be). Well, if you’d like a peek at these goings-on, get yourself over to the Westport Country Playhouse where Theresa Rebeck’s often hilarious “The Understudy” is currently being offered. As directed by David Kennedy, the play is basically a rehearsal where anything that possibly can go wrong does – theatrically and emotionally – and makes for an enjoyable two hours (no intermission) that may drag a bit at moments (possibly just a bit too much discussion of the Kafka mind-set), but has enough high points to easily get you through the evening.

The opening scene may be a bit confusing for some in the audience, for Rebeck immediately breaks the fourth wall by having Harry (Eric Bryant) enter, fire a gun and stroll down the aisle house right. The fourth wall? Well, when you look at a stage (in most productions), you have stage left, right and up-stage. Down-stage is usually defined by where the stage’s apron ends, and the actors “act” as if there is a fourth wall erected there that is, of course, not there at all, else the audience could not see what’s going on.

Harry ascends the stage in front of the curtain (this is called a scene-in-one, which normally allows for set changes). He proceeds with a monologue that deals with an actor’s frustrations, including gripes about Hollywood blockbuster movies that require a minimum amount of acting talent and a maximum number of explosions and other special effects. It’s only when Jake (Brett Dalton) appears, an actor in the play being rehearsed, that it becomes apparent that Harry has been venting to an empty theater. Ah, so the fourth wall really hasn’t been broken…the theater itself is the stage.

Jake challenges Harry’s presence – he’s apparently not supposed to be in the theater. Harry runs off, the curtain rises and Roxanne (Andrea Syglowski), the stage manager, appears to begin running the rehearsal. But Harry is supposed to be there – he’s Jake’s understudy, and the rehearsal has been called to run him through his lines and the play’s blocking. There’s one more character, “Laura,” who’s never seen or heard from, but “Laura” is responsible for many of the laughs the show delivers, for she is in charge of running the sound (compliments of Fitz Patton) and light boards, but apparently she is more than one toke over the line (or often mysteriously absent), so over the course of the evening, sets (deftly designed Andrew Boyce) roll in and out at inopportune moments, lights come up or go down with a mind of their own (at one point the theater is plunged into darkness, forcing the actors to use flashlights), and sound cues either arrive too early or too late, much to Roxanne’s frustration. Another unseen character is “Bruce,” the star of the show who makes mega-millions starring in the blockbusters Harry disdains. It doesn’t take much of a stretch to assume that Rebeck is alluding to Bruce Willis.

The play being rehearsed? Well, it’s never named, but it’s a recently discovered drama by none other than Franz Kafka, which allows Rebeck to offer up a lot of allusions for those familiar with Kafka’s work, from a castle and a trial with no apparent crime to, yes, of course, a bug. It also allows Jake, whose main claim to fame is the action films he has starred in (appropriately, Dalton will be familiar to many as Agent Grant Ward in the ABC series “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”), to prove that he’s not as shallow as Harry thinks he is (a running joke is a line of dialogue – “Get in the truck!” – from Jake’s last film that Harry taunts Jake with). However, some of the play’s slower moments have Jake pontificating at length about “meaning” and existentialism, much to Harry’s confusion.

These are actors rehearsing a play, but they are also people with outside lives, and this fills out what otherwise might have been a simple behind-the-scenes story about boarding a play. Jake feigns unconcern, but he is eager to learn if he’s landed a role in an upcoming film, so he’s often on the phone with his agent. Dalton’s delivery of his side of these conversations is excellent, no more so than when his character gets the final call, which he takes off stage, standing in the semi-dark house right. It’s a subtle yet deft piece of acting.

As for Harry and Roxanne, they have a history. In fact, Harry disappeared two weeks before they were to be married, which has left Roxanne emotionally scarred, a scarring that translates to controlled anger that finally bubbles over. This allows Roxanne to deliver a pain-filled monologue late in the show that is, for the audience, cathartic, for those watching have been waiting for Roxanne to let it all hang out and Syglowski delivers.

The play is filled with a lot of theatrical “in” jokes that many audience members got but were lost on others. However, what’s not lost is the controlled chaos that often occurs during a tech rehearsal as well as the two different acting styles evinced by Harry and Jake. Jake just wants to deliver his lines, but much to Jake’s and Roxanne’s growing frustration, Harry is constantly breaking character to ask for “motivation” or to question the logic of a scene or piece of blocking. It’s another running joke, often quite humorous, no more so than, again late in the show, Harry, in character, is dealing with life and death issues then abruptly stops to once again ask about motivation. It was unexpected, and after a beat or two, the audience erupted with laughter.

The actual rehearsals for “The Understudy” must have been very interesting, for there are so many scripted mishaps and intricate lighting (kudos to Matthew Richards) and sound cues and scene changes that all seem wrong and mistakes but are integral to the play that it must have taken a while for the actors to adjust and become comfortable with the mayhem. After all, in a “normal” play when you deliver a line about a violent storm descending and it doesn’t appear, well, you feel naked on the stage; when you’re working with one set and it suddenly slides off stage for no apparent reason you are a bit nonplussed.

Putting aside the “slow” moments, which, thankfully are few and far between, “The Understudy” is a delightful comedy that often borders on farce, with just a touch of slapstick, and the final scene, choreographed by Noah Racey, which has Harry and Jake doing a silly dance, is delightful. It captures, visually, the essential wackiness inherent in the play, a Chaplinesque answer to the angst, anxiety and darkness that was Kafka’s stock in trade. Much praise to director Kennedy for grasping all of the comedic opportunities in the play and coaching his cast to deliver them with style, grace and a great sense of timing.

“The Understudy” runs through September 1. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to

Monday, August 13, 2018

A "Singular Sensation"

A Chorus Line -- Ivoryton Playhouse -- Through September 2

Obviously, casting is important for any show – cast the wrong actor in a role and it can let the air out of one of the show’s tires. However, there are some shows that have become so iconic, and the characters so imbedded in the public’s mind, that casting it correctly is almost a death-defying, high-wire act (to switch metaphors) – one false move and the show plummets. Of course, you can cast against type, but that often draws more attention to the casting choice than to the production itself. Correct casting is never more important than when deciding to board “A Chorus Line,” the backstage show-biz musical that opened on Broadway in 1975 and is currently on the stage at the Ivoryton Playhouse. I am happy to report that Jacqueline Hubbard, the Playhouse’s executive/artistic director, and Todd L. Underwood, the show’s director, along with Michael Morris, musical director, walked the tightrope with nary a false step, for the cast, across the board, is outstanding, and the show is one, whether you’ve seen other productions or not, that should not be missed.
The reason why casting is so critical for this musical, with music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Edward Kleband and a book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, is that although it’s essentially an ensemble cast the show consists of a series of vignettes, some delivered via song and others via monologues, that literally puts the spotlight on individual actors. As they step forward to tell their characters’ stories, each has the opportunity to create a unique moment, and by and large they all succeed.

The show’s gestation involved several workshop sessions with Broadway dancers, called “gypsies” because they have no permanent “home” -- they travel from show to show wherever the work takes them. Michael Bennet, the show’s original choreographer, sat in on these sessions and, although there is contention about exactly who came up with the idea, Bennet realized that what the dancers were telling him, their stories, was grist for the theatrical mill. Hence, “A Chorus Line” was born.

The show, save for the finale, is about the arduous, sometimes degrading, always stressful audition process, and opens on a bare stage lit primarily by a “ghost” light, a single light on a pole that is kept lit in most theaters, ostensibly to allow people to see where they’re going when the stage in unlit but, if you buy into theater lore and superstition, is really to keep theatrical ghosts at bay. It’s a bare-bones scenic design (compliments of Martin Scott Marchitto), save for mirrors that often line a rehearsal studio (actually they look like they’re made of mylar and make the dancers look like they’re dancing in a fun-house, but whatever) and a “rain” curtain in the final scene; the lack of scenery and props emphasizes that it’s all on the actors to provide the gloss, glitter and atmosphere.
In the musical, the show being cast requires four male and four female dancers, but three times as many dancers are auditioning, so there’s the inevitable winnowing process. The show’s director, Zach (Edward Stanley), is overseeing the process with the assistance of his choreographer, Larry (Max Weinstein), and after putting the dancers through an initial routine and making some cuts, Zach has those remaining literally toe the line and then requests that they speak about themselves, which sets up most of the production, for they all step forward, either individually or in groups, to tell their stories.

I’ve seen this show multiple times – know the characters, know their stories – so there was a possibility that my overall reaction might be, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Such was not the case. The stories, whether told via song or monologue, are still compelling and delivered with such conviction that one is compelled to attend and respond. My one somewhat negative reaction, and this is not the fault of this production, is the length of the opening sequence, which has the full company running through several dance routines, while occasionally breaking out with the “I Hope I Get It” song, punctuated by “I Really Need This Job” – it just seems to run on a bit too long. Since we have yet to be introduced to the individual characters, it seems, at moments, a simple flurry of dancing bodies.

However, once the cuts are made and Zach makes his request for self-revelation, the show begins to soar and never flags. As mentioned, this is an ensemble piece, but there are standouts. The first of them is Natalie Madison as Diana Morales. Her story involves her experience in a high school acting class in which she is constantly belittled. This is rendered via “Nothing,” and her haunting voice carries with it the sense of the demeaning nature of her experience. You can’t help but edge a bit forward in your seat as her story unfolds until it gets to the poignant final moment when she feels “nothing” upon hearing that her former teacher had passed away. Madison also gets to sing one of the show’s signature songs, “What I Did For Love,” which she does in such a heartfelt manner it’s like you’re hearing this song for the first time.

Another first among equals is Alexa Racioippi as Val, who delivers the best “tits and ass” sequence (“Dance: Ten: Looks: Three”) I’ve ever seen. She flaunts what the plastic surgeon has given her without shame – it’s sassy and stylish and basically demands that the audience acknowledge the essence of what the song is about. At one point Val turns to the audience and says, “You’re looking at my tits, aren’t you?” (this after a little hop-hop turn that makes her breasts jiggle and bounce). Yes, we are. Gotcha!
I could go on: there’s the opening story delivered by Mike (Dakota Hoar), the “I Can Do That” song, that brings to mind the “Billy Eliot” story. Then there’s the entire Montage sequence, which includes the touching “At the Ballet” number featuring Bebe (Kayla Starr Bryan), Maggie (Liv Kurtz) and Sheila (Lili Thomas), which offers a view of dancing school as a retreat for these three young women from the stark and somewhat painful realities of their home lives. The number also emphasizes how Marcus Abbot’s lighting design is so integral to this production. There have been times in the past when the Ivoryton lighting, at least in early days of a show, has been a bit shaky (especially with follow spots), but in “Chorus Line” it is flawless – it draws the audience’s attention to what they should be looking at without drawing attention to itself.

As for stark and painful realities, nothing tops the story Paul (Joey Lucherini) tells late in the second act. Reluctant to speak throughout most of the audition, he finally unburdens himself, relating how he came out of the closet and ended up in a drag show, only to have his parents confront him, when he is in full costume, back stage. Although the telling could have been sped up a bit, in the end it’s a story that can’t help but make the emotions twitch just a bit.
All of this leads to the final number, “One,” and although it’s been expected (and anticipated) by all who are familiar with the show, it still delivers a certain amount of elation and triumph for, unlike in the opening sequence, the audience now knows who these dancers are, their trials and tribulations, and although the show they have been cast in will inevitably close and they will move on (reality, too, for the actors up on the stage), for this one, brief, shining moment they have achieved success.

Ivoryton’s second summer musical is a crowd-pleasing winner. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve seen the show before (especially if you’re only familiar with the agonizingly flawed, over-produced film version) or are new to the world of the “gypsies.” This is the type of show where you just might resent there being an intermission because you want to get back to your seat and see and hear more, if only because there’s so much talent up there on the stage. You might well ask yourself, “Am I in Ivoryton or on Broadway?”

“A Chorus Line” runs through September 2. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to