Sunday, January 9, 2011

Rebeck reboots Kafka - kind of

One morning Gregor Samsa awoke from restless dreams to find himself transformed into a successful playwright and screenwriter. He lay on his brittle back and, raising his head a little, gazed out at his Park Slope condo and thought to himself, "What has happened to me?? How unfair that I'm not more successful! This is, you know, an existential dilemma - just like I read about in college!!!"

No, this is not how the famous Franz Kafka story "The Metamorphosis" actually begins - but you get the impression, from her irritating play The Understudy (now at the Lyric Stage), that this is how Theresa Rebeck would handle the rewrite.

But wait, let's back up a bit.  As you may recall, Rebeck is one of the most successful whiners - oh, sorry, I meant writers - of the New York stage. She has been produced all over, been published many times, written several movies, and landed gigs on TV shows like Law and Order. She lives a comfortable - very comfortable - life for a playwright. Still, she's not happy. She should have done better!, she lets everyone know. Why hasn't she been on Broadway?  Why hasn't she won a Pulitzer? (Hell, why hasn't she won the Nobel?)

At first her widely-reported rationale was: "Because I'm a woman, that's why!" Only eventually she got to Broadway (her show closed quickly), and then was short-listed for the Pulitzer (but didn't win). Meanwhile other, more talented female writers (Lydia Diamond, Annie Baker) began to appear on the scene, and Rebeck sensed it was time to upgrade the foundation of her whining from sexism to something - well, bigger, more pervasive; something that could withstand a rebuke like "Oh, but we did give the Pulitzer to a woman - only it was Lynn Nottage!"

Hence, you get the impression, The Understudy, in which a sad-sack stage actor understudies a "talent-free" action star in - get this - a newly-discovered drama by Franz Kafka (that's the big guy himself on the poster at top, behind actor Christopher James Webb). Now it seems life on the fringes of Broadway isn't just embarrassing, status-wise, for a relentless social climber like Rebeck, it's actually - no, literally - Kafkaesque.  Rehearsing for a hit show, she seems to think, is somehow like being transformed into a giant cockroach, or being executed for an unknown crime.

Hmmm.  Somehow I find this whole premise just ridiculous.  We should all be so lucky as to be understudies on Broadway shows, it seems to me, but as for Gregor Samsa's gig - well . . .

BUT, that's what the lady wrote.  And do I have a development deal with Drew Barrymore?  No, I do not. And at least Rebeck half-develops an interesting idea at the top of her three-hander, in which she hints that our new, collective-libertarian consensus about the free market may be driving us to a very dark place indeed, culturally speaking.  (Seen from the stage, the free market looks a LOT like the bureaucracy in Prague.)  To which I say: Hear, hear!  The playwright soon drops this worthy theme, however, and begins taking up other, less-interesting ones (only to quickly drop them, too).  Slowly her script becomes a series of contrived comic dialogues, in which the author airs her familiar grievances (bad boyfriends, sexism) through various permutations of her trio of characters - that sweet, not-so-very-dumb hunk of an action star, his capable, but frazzled, stage manager, and the rather self-impressedly depressed understudy.  Just to hammer home the Kafkaesque-ness of the situation, Rebeck pencils in a few other, unseen characters, like the stoned technical director, just to screw with our onstage friends every now and then.  Because, you know, that's what happens in Kafka.

Only try as hard as Rebeck may, she can't really convince us that her set-up is Kafkaesque.  Because - dare I say it? - she doesn't understand Kafka.  Of course her audience doesn't understand Kafka either - they just know vaguely that he's weird and depressing - so she figures she's safe.

But here's the  important thing to understand about Franz Kafka, just so you'll know where Rebeck goes wrong - the master of Prague is considered "existential" because his characters participate in their own predicaments.  Their travails are not merely thrust upon them, like Stalinism (or libertarianism) - they are, instead, something they are responsible for, that perversely enough, they actually support.  Gregor Samsa's physical metamorphosis, for instance, only mirrors his moral condition - he "becomes" a cockroach because spiritually he long ago became a kind of pathetic vermin.  (Indeed, in a literal translation from the German, he's not specifically a roach at all, but instead "an unclean animal.")  And in The Trial, Herr K. is so persuaded of his own guilt that he comes to believe his execution is "inevitable;" it's only at the last minute, with his dying words, "Like a dog!," that he realizes what he has allowed himself to become.

But for Theresa Rebeck to make any of her characters truly existential would throw a wrench into her upper-middlebrow commercial appeal (she'd never write a career woman who realizes she's morally "like a dog," for instance).  So instead she writes a kind of long-form sitcom with pretentious, NPR-audience allusions and in-jokes - jokes designed for people who've heard something of Kafka, but have never actually read him.

Even this would be okay, I suppose, if The Understudy were simply more entertaining - or even just shorter.  Or if its inevitable romantic triangle weren't so ineptly rendered.  Indeed, the unhappy trio of The Understudy remind you more of the damned souls in No Exit than anything in Kafka - only the problem is that this time there's no exit for us, the audience.   The only real "development" is our slowly-dawning awareness, as the play grinds on, and as Rebeck runs through the various chips, and quips, on her shoulders, of how little she understands of her supposed inspiration.  One scene is actually devoted to the idea that Kafka would be more effective if he were sexier, for example.  And if more of his faceless bureaucrats happened to be hot babes.  (No, I'm not making this up.  This clever play really gets that stupid - which is when you realize Rebeck is actually a part of, rather than opposed to, the pop milieu she pretends to condemn.)

Luckily, the Lyric cast is quite strong, and they're wittily directed by Larry Coen, so they keep the laughs coming, and the script going (despite itself), for about two-thirds of its length.  Laura Latreille is the stand-out as the harried stage manager (although she enters with a tad too much bitterness, I think - the acid should rise in her performance when she realizes, in a standard Rebeck trope, that her understudy is also her ex).  And luckily Latreille is well-matched by hottie Kelby T. Akin as that action star - who, improbably enough, has not just the requisite killer abs, but also a real jones for Kafka (which only means he understands the author about as well as Rebeck does).

The slightly weak link in the trio is Christopher James Webb, who's actually fine in his snarky soliloquies and asides, but who can't conjure much chemistry (even fizzled chemistry) with Latreille, and who hasn't figured out how to put over his supposed awesome renditions of that weird new Kafka script.  Not that can I can blame him; Rebeck seems to want to play Herr K strictly for laughs, and yet at the same time make some sort of existential pit yawn before us.  She succeeds intermittently in the first aim (she's helped along by Arshan Gailus's witty sound design) but needless to say pretty much fails at the second.

And slowly the one-liners begin to land with more and more of a thud, and as they lose steam, so does the whole play (because let's face it, one-liners are what Theresa Rebeck does). By the finish, I can't tell you how often I had checked my watch, hoping each scene of The Understudy would prove its last.  Indeed, as the curtain finally fell, I was more than willing to admit one thing about Rebeck's script:

For the audience, it was almost Kafkaesque.

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