Williamstown's Nikos Stage (named for the late longtime artistic director Nikos Psacharopoulos) has traditionally been a review-exempt space for workshopping new plays, so allowances must be made. Any fledgling endeavor by the perhaps overextended Theresa Rebeck (whose five plays to date include Bad Dates and the recently released novel Three Girls and Their Brother ) is big news- however, her latest, The Understudy, is really not ready for close scrutiny. Despite Scott Ellis's deft direction and handsome sets by Alexander Dodge (the final Escheresque stairway is a beaut), the play is rambling, repetitive, and riddled with inconsistencies. That said, it's also immensely enjoyable - thanks in part to Rebeck's original perspective, and also largely to a superlative cast.
Reg Rogers plays the shambolic title character, Harry - or at least that's the name the luckless actor is going by now, having had to change it so as to shake creditors. That's why stage manager Roxanne (Kristen Johnston , who gets to indulge her comic bossy side) doesn't catch on, beforehand, that the new hire is the heel who left her virtually at the altar six years ago, disappearing without a word. It's her job to work Harry into a pickup rehearsal with the show's action-movie star and second lead, Jake (Bradley Cooper ), who'll in turn be covering for the superstar headliner, the never-seen "Bruce." The production? As Jake describes it, "Kafka's undiscovered masterpiece on Broadway."
Great premise, and Rebeck runs with it - although, too often, in place. Hilarious lines and situations abound, but a few too many end up recycled (there's a difference between motif and tired joke). It's also puzzling why Jake alternates between snootiness and camaraderie: his friendly overtures can't really derive from admiration for Harry's talent, when the acting style that the latter employs went out with Basil Rathbone.
Still, who can argue with 90 minutes of easy laughs? By the time this loving spoof - Rebeck knows her way around actors' egotistical foibles - finds its way to the vicinity of Broadway, perhaps the kinks will have been ironed out. Either way, there's plenty to enjoy in this backstage breakdown of theatrical "magic" in the making.