'Understudy' more than just a peek into a rehearsal

By JULIE McHALE - TimeOut Theater Critic

January 24, 2014


MILWAUKEE - Theresa Rebeck is back with another of her ingenious scripts.  Rebeck, a successful playwright, has entertained and intrigued us before with “Bad Dates” (the Milwaukee Rep) and “Mauritius” (the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre). 

How delightful to encounter her again. Rebeck has the ability to amuse us while also inserting some hefty meat into her scripts, something to ponder.

“The Understudy” takes a look at many subjects - the art of acting, the entertainment business, the difficulty of balancing a career in performance with a personal life, the conflicting opinions on how to interpret a given script, the possible tech problems in a given production, the competitiveness, the clash of egos, the vulnerabilities - all are addressed by three professionals with a very live script to work with.

Ken T. Williams is excellent as Harry, the insecure understudy who feels like nothing is going right for him at the moment. Philip Sletteland as a very mercurial Jake who, among other things, is torn between money and artistry. Cassandra Bissell as the brittle, business-like stage manager Roxanne, who has a lot more than missing props to deal with.

One of the most interesting aspects of this show is that we see behind the curtain, not only of the production they are rehearsing, but also behind their own personal curtains. We see characters and roles but the persons behind those roles.  We enjoy getting to know these three well-developed characters by means of the artistry of three very impressive actors.

They are supposedly preparing a production of Kafka, so there are kudos and barbs sent his way. Who ever dreamed one could find something to laugh at in Kafka? Apparently, Rebeck, with her wry sense of humor.

Lighting and set designs by Jan Kellogg and Nathan Stuber are spot on. The overall direction by Mallory Metoxen is also noteworthy. Overall, a satisfying night at the theater, so much so that we wanted to join the dancers at the end despite the bittersweetness of their lives.

If you love the complications and joys of live theater, you’ll  treasure this one.

“The Understudy” runs through Feb. 9 in the Studio Theatre at the Broadway Theater Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. For show times and tickets, call 414-291-7800 or visit