Eric Bryant

Action Kafka

Review of The Understudy, Westport Country Playhouse

Once again, Westport’s co-artistic director David Kennedy has found a notable play to direct. Theresa Rebeck’s multivalent comedy The Understudy has entertaining fun with theater, show-biz, romantic comedy, and Kafka. Kennedy’s direction weaves together the various levels of the play’s action in a very engaging way, keeping before us the play’s main contention: theater is the existential art par excellence.

The play opens with a bang, literally, as Harry (Eric Bryant), the titular character, storms into the theater shooting off a prop gun, threatening the audience to turn off their damn cell phones (with good reason: let’s compare most egregious cell phone disruption at a play). Harry, as he proceeds to tell us, is a respectable actor who has taken on the role of understudy in a theatrical version of Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel The Castle, which—in the play’s fiction—is playing on Broadway. The Kafka play stars a Hollywood action hero known only as “Bruce” whose “quote” for a film is upwards of $22 million. We never see him.

Roxanne (Andrea Syglowski), Harry (Eric Bryant), Jake (Brett Dalton) (photos: Carol Rosegg)

Roxanne (Andrea Syglowski), Harry (Eric Bryant), Jake (Brett Dalton) (photos: Carol Rosegg)

The other actor in the show, who will have to go on for Bruce if he should be absent for some reason, is Jake (Brett Dalton), an up-and-coming (he hopes) film actor, far below Bruce in pecking order, but far above Harry. As it’s explained at one point, in Shakespearean terms, Bruce is Richard III, Jake is Henry V, and Harry is seventh spear carrier. Harry, in fact, missed getting a small part in the disaster film that Jake is currently starring in. Its breakaway line—“Get in the truck!”—gets a lot of comic mileage.

Harry will understudy Jake, so that if Jake has to take Bruce’s part—which is a multi-character role, basically every character but the protagonist—Harry will take Jake’s. Helping along this percolating male rivalry, and at times aghast at it, is Roxanne (Andrea Syglowski), the beleaguered Stage Manager. She’s very good at her job, but her emotions get involved because—the romantic comedy aspect—she and Harry have history. He jilted her.

Jake (Brett Dalton), Roxanne (Andrea Syglowski), Harry (Eric Bryant)

Jake (Brett Dalton), Roxanne (Andrea Syglowski), Harry (Eric Bryant)

That romantic subplot gives considerable status to Roxanne and lets Syglowski run away with a number of scenes. She’s very good at playing sarcasm, emotional explosion, and self-conscious irritation, all in the same speech. The romantic comedy elements work into the actors’ one-upmanship quite well, particularly with the staging of kiss before or after slap.

Roxanne’s distress is what makes real-life messiness impinge on the make-believe of the theater and the “can you believe it” of show biz. The earning ability of pointless, barely entertaining movies, and the money and power of those who star in them, is the source of Harry’s bitterness, and Bryant is generally entertaining in putting across Harry’s realization that, in terms of the star system, he’s wasting his life and his talent and is a nothing. His failure with Roxanne shows that he’s not even very good at starring in his own life. Cue Kafka.

Kafka is a dead writer with considerable hipster cred—virtually unknown and mostly unpublished in his lifetime, he’s now a household word (well, in literate households), his name synonymous with a state of modern anomie in which the experience of living is a kind of purgatory of dread and uncertainty, marked by the creeping suspicion that all decisions and actions—and the success or failure they entail—are arbitrary in an arbitrary world. For some must understudy whilst some must star, and so runs the world away.

One of the play’s easy jokes is that a three-hour play derived from Kafka would be a hit on Broadway if only an actor with Bruce’s instant recognizability would take part. We may be reminded of unlikely hits in which a similar casting coup carried the day, and that’s the point. Very capable actors find themselves earning “real money” as minor characters in Law and Order, while big name actors can make or break plays beyond their skill set.

Which puts the focus on Jake. Assumed to be an unintelligent, talentless success by Harry, Dalton’s Jake is an acting enthusiast as only a fan boy can be. He speaks of Kafka with the kind of relentless admiration generally reserved for Dr. Who or Star Trek. He makes the telling point that the $2 million he received for the disaster epic “doesn’t go very far,” when you consider how much money has to be shelled out to keep his circus running. Theater is always precarious, but perhaps more precarious is remaining “A-list”—even more precarious is trying to break into that world, as Jake hopes to do.

Jake (Brett Dalton), Roxanne (Andrea Syglowski), Harry (Eric Bryant)

Jake (Brett Dalton), Roxanne (Andrea Syglowski), Harry (Eric Bryant)

At Westport, a key comic element works well. Up in the booth is Laura, Roxanne's assistant, seemingly a stoner who misses cues, won’t take direction, and switches scenery unasked. She’s a kind of demented god in the machine, cueing the Kafka play’s sets and making The Castle—our play is supposedly a run-through rehearsal—pursue its arc, from bar-room to trial room to prison cell, letting each change contribute to the exchanges among the trio. The changes let us know not only where we are in the shambles of a rehearsal but also where we are in terms of The Understudy’s own arc. One of the underlying perks of The Understudy is that any given production gets to determine how a “Broadway play of The Castle” might look and sound. Andrew Boyce’s scenic designs, complete with Disneyesque castle backdrop, Matthew Richards’ lighting design, and Fitz Patton’s sound design, with Kennedy’s direction, almost make us wish the play were real. The delightful “old soft shoe” in the conclusion is a suitably existentialist gesture, as in Kafka meets Chaplin.

Not everything in the script is as sharp as it could be. The use of fortuitous exits and of the oft-stated and just as oft forgotten fact that everything said on the stage can be heard throughout the building at times forces action or revelation in highly scripted ways. But even that is not without charm, since Rebeck’s working conceit is that life has its “cues” and its “reveals” in ways that seem to be part of a play. The Kafkaesque sense that our lives may be rehearsals for a part we never get to play (see “Before the Law”) underscores The Understudy with understated irony. Life is so unfunny all we can do is laugh at it. Amusing theater helps.


The Understudy
By Theresa Rebeck
Directed by David Kennedy

Scenic Design: Andrew Boyce; Costume Design: Maiko Matsushima; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Fitz Patton; Choreographer: Noah Racey; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy

Cast: Eric Bryant, Brett Dalton, Andrea Syglowski

Westport Country Playhouse
August 14-September 1, 2018


Follow the Money

Review of The Invisible Hand, Westport Country Playhouse

An American banker held hostage by Muslim militants in Pakistan for $5 million in ransom becomes the fulcrum for Ayad Akhtar’s canny look at the clash of values in the modern world. On the one hand, the ubiquitous materialism of international finance capital; on the other hand, the political aspirations of insurgents and terrorists; and, “on the invisible hand,” so to speak, the uncertain value of what we think of as humanism, or perhaps “cultural capital”—the ability to claim kinship, even with our enemies, on the basis of common humanity. This tense and thoughtfully fraught play is a triumph of careful staging and interesting plot twists.

For economist Adam Smith, “the invisible hand” was the guiding force that, even in a conflict of interests, would maintain the world system against chaos. Everyone wants a piece of the pie and will have to take part in the system to achieve any material goals, thus acting toward the good of the system. Akhtar's The Invisible Hand demonstrates not only the human costs that the good of the system may entail, but also the tension between the individual and the collective and the problem of administering between the two, at the local level.

Imam Saleem (Rajesh Bose), Nick Bright (Eric Bryant), Bashir (Fajer Kaisi) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Imam Saleem (Rajesh Bose), Nick Bright (Eric Bryant), Bashir (Fajer Kaisi) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Nick Bright (Eric Bryant) cleverly makes a virtue of necessity when he decides to help his captors raise money by playing on futures in the international marketplace to buy his freedom, once it’s clear that no one will pay his ransom (there won’t be any negotiation after his captors have been designated as terrorists). Nick’s naked self-interest supports his reasons for giving a lesson—to a terrorist cell—in how to work the market strategically. Whatever his aid might mean to him or his country or the global market, the conflict between Nick’s values and his captors’ becomes explicit when Imam Saleem (Rajesh Bose) questions Nick about his beliefs. The point the Imam insists on is that money isn’t everything; it’s merely a means to bargain and negotiate. For Nick, money is simply the basic fact of life. But the wrong reasoning could cost him his.

In any conflict between the West’s capitalist system and Islam, there is a question of values at stake. Akhtar’s play becomes a crucible—quite gripping in its deft intelligence—for how monetary worth can both achieve goals and undermine value. Refreshingly, the play is for the most part free of ideological cant. There are moments when Bashir (Fajer Kaisi), the England-born jailer assigned to oversee Nick’s efforts and aid him as best he can, denigrates the U.S. for its power and indifference, as the Imam does for its “fat people,” but there are also moments when Nick sticks up for the U.S. as the lesser of the other evils—Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Red China—that, rather than the U.S., might have played international banker and power-broker since World War II.

The positions of the characters are always clear and their give-and-take, under David Kennedy’s very capable direction, feels immediate and created by the situation. That’s important, because a fair amount of the dialogue, in the middle of Act One, entails Nick trying to get Bashir to understand his economic strategies. So we too get a crash course in how to make the most of market volatility.

Thankfully, results help ease Bashir’s doubts about Nick’s intentions, but further tension comes into play when the Imam sees no reason not to use some of the capital for things his people need—like vaccines—while to Nick the only purpose of the capital is to increase it until he makes the agreed-on sum. The humor in the play comes from the fact that, to a certain extent, money makes stooges us of all, and to laugh at the captors dickering with their prisoner on how to increase their portfolio is very much to the play’s point. The big goals—survival or freedom—become collateral prizes of the big prize: the stockpiling of capital, to let money make money.

Imam Saleem (Rajesh Bose), Bashir (Fajer Kaisi), Nick Bright (Eric Bryant), Dar (Jameal Ali) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Imam Saleem (Rajesh Bose), Bashir (Fajer Kaisi), Nick Bright (Eric Bryant), Dar (Jameal Ali) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Along the way, the captors are humanized as we would expect: Dar (Jameal Ali), the low-level guard, puts us at ease early when we see how simpatico he and Nick have become, later we see how, in this system, his only identity is as a tool of power; Bashir, who is louder, scarier and more changeable, becomes a figure for the power of money to sway, and even to soften—up to a point; Imam Saleem, a former journalist who has become an Islamic leader, seems, at first, wisely detached, but he may insist on a system of value that puts Bashir and Nick’s work in jeopardy. Later, when Nick’s advice begins to lay bare the different goals and viewpoints of Bashir and Saleem, the play achieves a new configuration that demonstrates, in Act Two, how the exercise of power—generally called politics—can be dirtier and more dehumanizing than simple greed.

The cast is uniformly effective in adhering to the rigors of Akhtar’s script. As with his Pulitzer-prize-winning four-person play Disgraced (recently in a wonderfully tight production at Long Wharf Theatre with Bose in the main role), Akhtar keeps the interplay of the four characters our main focus. Here, Nick, like the put-upon Muslim-American lawyer in Disgraced, is a central figure whose know-how becomes a catalyst to entanglements he’d rather avoid, and Bryant is wonderfully vivid as a civilian prisoner trying hard not to become a political sacrifice. In Act Two his increasing befuddlement and desperation are dramatically realized. Bose registers the Imam’s decency and his fatuousness with deft aplomb; Ali’s Dar is generally glum or distraught, after his initial ill-advised enthusiasm; and Kaisi’s sense of nuance makes Bashir increasingly the focal point: we may be watching the growth of a true terrorist leader out of a lackadaisical globalized Everyman.

Adam Rigg’s scenic design deserves mention for its important credibility; we need to feel the oppression of the prison cell, a feeling aided by Matthew Richards’ lighting design and Fitz Patton’s sound design with its rumble of U.S. drone flights and distant explosions. The War on Terrorism, which Pakistan abetted, is a costly venture, both in dollars and in damage, and The Invisible Hand reminds us that, when it comes to covert strategies, much remains “invisible.”


The Invisible Hand
By Ayad Akhtar
Directed by David Kennedy

Scenic Design: Adam Rigg; Costume Design: Emily Rebholz; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Fitz Patton; Dialect Coach: Lous Colaianni; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Props Master: Karin White; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith

Cast: Jameal Ali; Rajesh Bose; Eric Bryant; Fajer Kaisi

Westport Country Playhouse
July 19-August 6, 2016