It was only a matter of time before someone sneaked a cheap Jeremy Piven/Speed-the-Plow/Sushigate joke into a play. At least it makes sense in Theresa Rebeck’s new Broadway-set three-hander, The Understudy, where one of the characters happens to be a Hollywood star. And at least it’s only a quick reference to ”mercury poisoning” — because it’s one of a very few jokes that misses its mark in Rebeck’s otherwise razor-sharp black comedy.
Former Saved by the Bell heartthrob Mark-Paul Gosselaar makes a very credible stage debut as Jake (the aforementioned Hollywood star), a low-level movie actor/marquee name hoping to earn serious street cred doing a three-hour Kafka play on Broadway. Gosselaar brings so much sincerity and enthusiasm to Jake’s dime-store philosophical theories — ”I’m talking about Kafka’s VISION of a world that’s gone so far down the road of existential shame and anxiety that the self can’t even regenerate a sense of being in the face of, buildings collapsing the whole culture can’t even GENERATE because of this intangible decay” — that we’re ready to buy a ticket to the fictional play then and there. Never mind that no one understands the play, or even likes it. Not the understudy, Harry (Weeds‘ Justin Kirk), or the high-strung stage manager, Roxanne (played by Tony winner and Rebeck’s go-to leading lady, Julie White). ”I think Kafka is full of s—,” she cracks. ”I hate Kafka.”
Pity that there’s not more chemistry between White and Kirk, whose characters have a long and complicated romantic history; alas, there’s even less between White and Gosselaar. (In the play’s summer 2008 premiere at Massachusetts’ Williamstown Theatre Festival — where EW named it one of the best shows of 2008 — Kristen Johnston was a better match with costars Bradley Cooper and Reg Rogers.) But when it comes to slapping guys or threatening to hit them with shovels, White simply can’t be topped. B+
(Tickets: roundabouttheatre.org or 212-719-1300)