“The Understudy” at Seattle Public Theatre

Kafka’s alive and well on the Public Theatre stage. As two actors and the stage manager do the understudy rehearsal of a Kafka play, they find themselves trapped in a Kafkaesque world. Nothing works as it should. The star’s not a great actor; the understudy is; the sound and lights flash or blast on and off because the technician is stoned; props disappear; and there’s a backstory that causes the manager to hate the understudy.

Playwright Theresa Rebeck has a lot to say about the role of economics in contemporary life, but most of all she offers a laugh filled, angst ridden look at the present state of live theatre in America. Today, big theatre roles at huge salaries are too often handed to small talent movie stars whose names alone draw large audiences. It’s an absurd world, she says, straight out of Kafka, and she inserts little Kafka references throughout her play to remind you of that fact.

The actors under the keen direction of Kelly Kitchens move seamlessly from one outsized emotion to another. They skirt minefields and then dive right into them. They are sensitive and needy or demanding and overbearing. Brenda Joyner as the stage manager seems to be so tightly wound, that it’s miraculous she can restrain her hysteria, except for those rare moments when softer emotions prevail. She’s mesmerizing.

Mike Dooly as Jake, the studly actor, and John Ulman as the new understudy are superb foils for one another. Dooly is so condescending, so superior, except when he too is forced to realize that Kafka rules the world. And Ulman is such a nerd until he finds his grace.

Rebeck’s language is witty. Her message is profound and pertinent to all culture lovers. There are some carps one can offer about the play. She tries a bit too hard to be Kafkaesque. It’s not easy to figure out exactly what Jake’s role is in the play within the play. But if you want a production that will stimulate your thought processes as it makes you laugh, you’ll find it here.

Through Feb. 17 at Seattle Public Theatre, 7312 W. Greenlake Dr. N., Seattle (206 524-1300 or www.seattlepublictheatre.org)

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