Until now, I was always haunted by the line about “first-nighting” in that song “Autumn in New York.” But after seeing Coyote StageWorks’ newest show at the lovely Annenberg Theater in Palm Springs, The Understudy, I think we’ve got New York beat: Mix a gorgeous mellow fall evening, a packed house of enthusiastic theater-goers, the presentation of a citation celebrating the achievements of Coyote Stageworks from city of Palm Springs, and the excitement of opening night for a new play … can it get better than this?
The Understudy is the 10th-season-opener for Coyote StageWorks and Chuck Yates, the founding artistic director. The company has garnered more than 80 Desert Theatre League Awards—and if that’s not success, what is? Alas, not everyone goes to the theater—a pity, because no electronic experience can duplicate the thrill of live theater. When a show is a success, there is an electricity in the audience … and you will never feel that sitting in front of your TV or movie screen. If you have never gone to the theater, and would like to try it,The Understudy is a perfect place to start.
Of course, not everyone has been in a play, either—and this show will let you peek into the process of building a scene and a character, and the relationships and tensions among the actors. For those at the other end of that spectrum, it’s a wonderful luxury to watch others navigate the changing (and sometimes shark-infested) waters of a rehearsal.
So here’s the play: Harry (David Youse) arrives at a theater to understudy a role in an ongoing show … by Franz Kafka. Oh, stop groaning. We get to see snippets from the play as the actors work, but it’s not enough to make you Kafka-crazy. The ugly bare stage on which they begin their work slowly comes to life—and what a fabulous set Thomas Valach has designed here. Moira Wilke Whitaker’s lighting is just fantastic, and the two work together beautifully as the play unfolds.
Harry arrives to rehearse with Jake (Alex Best), a successful but minor action-movie star who is desperate to establish himself as a real and serious Actor by appearing in this play. The two men vie for alpha-dog rights immediately. The stage director, who is running the rehearsal, is Roxanne (Robin McAlpine), a feisty middle-aged former actress. Two characters we hear about but never see are Bruce, who has the lead role in this show and is a big-name movie star whose celebrity sucks in huge crowds nightly; and Laura, the evidently totally stoned lighting and sound tech up in the booth.
The Understudy is written by Theresa Rebeck, who has been showered with awards, teaches writing at Brandeis and Columbia, and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. Laughs abound in this comedy—on many levels. There is truly something for everyone’s sense of humor in this script, and your involvement with these very believable characters will grow as you giggle. The first-night audience roared and applauded with gusto throughout. The writing contains a magnificent arc, as the relationships among these characters grow and change.
The acting is simply superb. Yates’ always-formidable directing includes flawless blocking, which always balances the stage beautifully, and he moves his actors with perfect motivation—so that we never see it happen. The characters wear slightly grungy rehearsal garb, thanks to costumer Frank Cazares, but it adds to the realism. These actors show us their “acting,” as they have been schooled, in the play—with suddenly heightened voice projection, new and different posture, and exquisite diction … and then they break character to discuss what they are doing—while still, of course, acting for us! It’s wonderful. These skilled players augment the script with some marvelous touches, such as Jake’s constant filling of any spare time by dropping to the floor to do breathtaking push-ups; Harry’s layered and infinitely subtle facial expressions; and Roxanne’s spellbinding hand gestures. Bravo!
The play delves into some nearly-untouchable topics, such as: Are actors crazy? Who is really responsible for a play’s success or failure? What is the “biz” in Showbiz; is salary a true measure of an actor’s worth? The show flirts with personal and professional jealousies, every actor’s constant nagging worry about the future and the next job, and concern about how much of one’s success is due to one’s “contacts,” while how much is about their own real talent? Agreed, much of this applies to many other professions, but it all seems magnified in the theater.
Youse is a veteran actor, producer and director in his own right, and he brings a wealth of experience to his role as Harry. His complex character, who puzzles us a bit at first, grows to reveal a smart but unlucky aging thespian who hides his insecurities and personal flaws behind the roles he plays.
Best, a shining young tiger who works in stage, film, TV and commercials, shows us Jake, a creature of necessary vanity, who never stops fussing with his cell phone (“It’s my agent!”) or his obsession with the physical fitness demanded by action films—though he only flashes his rock-hard abs briefly. (Don’t blink.) He is unexpectedly likable, and is we grow fond of him as we see that even he can experience ups and downs in both his career and his personal life.
McAlpine, herself a successful Shakespearean actress, has created a fascinating character in Roxanne. We are initially impressed by her efficiency and her command of the frustrating and challenging job as stage manager. Murphy’s Law rules, however, and everything possible goes hilariously wrong. But as we get to know her, she reveals her self-doubts and her pain-filled past. I couldn’t take my eyes off her hands, which she brilliantly uses to tell us everything.
You will love this play, whatever level of theatrical experience you bring to it. In fact, I’m hoping you will gather up your friends and neighbors to visit this production, as Chuck Yates has created an ingenious 2-for-1 price for those who bring used ticket stubs to the box office. Take advantage of it! Enjoy!
The Understudy, a production of Coyote Stageworks, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 11, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Arts Museum, 101 Museum Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $45 to $60. For tickets or more information, call 760-325-4490, or visit www.coyotestageworks.org.