“I’m not bitter,” an insecure understudy named Harry (played by Adam Green) keeps saying at the start of “The Understudy,” which will be presented at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through Nov. 2. But you know that, really, he is.
The play he’s been hired for is a newly unearthed Kafka drama that is being presented on Broadway. And by the end of this one-act, hour-and-45-minute black comedy, you understand that he and the play’s other characters — fellow actor Jake (J.D. Taylor), who’s a budding Hollywood star, and high-strung stage manager Roxanne (Danielle Skraastad), who happens to Harry’s ex-fiancée — are living lives of Kafkaesque despair, in their own ways.
The existential horrors of modern theatrical life: That’s basically what “The Understudy” is about. Though, as I said, it’s a comedy, so there are a lot of laughs along the way, as well as a whimsical ending that lightens the harsh twist at the play’s climax.
Playwright Theresa Rebeck (“Mauritius,” “Omnium Gatherum,” “Dead Accounts,” “Seminar”) creates an uphill battle for herself. The play has little plot and three unlikable characters: Harry’s a supercilious loser, Jake is a vacuous pretty boy with an unlikely reverence for Kafka, and Roxanne is so angry at the world she always seems ready to bite the head off anyone who strays into her path. It’s hard to believe that anyone ever would be in love with either Adam or Roxanne, and you really have to suspend your disbelief to buy that they used to be madly in love in each other.
But through sharp dialogue and amusing literary references, “The Understudy” still makes for a lively evening. Also, director Adam Immerwahr and set designer Eugene Lee do a good job with the play’s physical humor, which comes largely from the scenery. The play’s unseen fourth character is an incompetent, drug-abusing woman in charge of the scenery, sound and lighting: parts of the set keep falling or malfunctioning or rolling around the stage when they’re not even supposed to be there. Kafka himself would have chuckled.
Where: Matthews Theatre at McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton
When: Oct. 23 and 30 at 7:30 p.m., Oct. 24 and 31 at 8 p.m., Oct. 25 and Nov. 1 at 3 and 8 p.m., Oct. 26 and Nov. 2 at 2 p.m.
How much: $25 to $87.50; call (609) 258-2787 visit mccarter.org