It is theater for theater people.
The Understudy, a play about rehearsing a play currently being presented at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center by Amphibian Stage Productions, throws all of its pitches inside. But this sharp, witty and extremely self-conscious comedy hits its strike zones with unerring accuracy.
The single-act show revolves around a Broadway production of a play by Franz Kafka. Harry (Chuck Huber) is the understudy to one of the two successful movie actors who play the lead roles in the play within the play. But his intuitive and emotional approach to acting flies in the face of the approach taken by the star for which he doubles, Jake (Carmen Lacivita), who is all method and intellect onstage -- despite the fact he makes big bucks as an action-adventure hero onscreen. Trying to referee their theatrical sparring is the stage manager, Roxanne (Sarah Koestner), who has her hands full with the show and a lot of history with the exasperating Harry.
All of the components of this show shine in varying degrees.
The writing, by Theresa Rebeck, is excellent. The dialogue is superbly suited to the moment, shifting from disarming naturalism to comic artificiality in the span of a heartbeat. The characters are vividly drawn and grow more interesting with every scene.
The acting is polished to a brilliant sheen. This show is not about its plot arc (although it offers a highly satisfying beginning, middle and end). It is about the relationships among its characters.
The members of his trio play off one another beautifully. They also take care of their acting chores with incredible thoroughness. All three, for example, provide textbook examples of using movement to define character.
Director Rene Moreno does an amazing balancing act with the script. He maintains the claustrophobic aspects of the show that echo Sartre's No Exit, where three characters are caught in a hell of their own making, but keeps things open and moving enough to carry the comedy and keep us from feeling as trapped as the actors.
There are a few problems. At 100 minutes, the show is too long for its one act and too short to be broken. Some may find the whole affair to be whiney navel gazing (theater folks feeling sorry for other theater folks). Plus, the layered artiness of its content may be off-putting for others.
But this production absolutely sparkles for anyone who appreciates rich writing and outstanding acting enough to be entertained by the inside-out approach this piece takes.