The Understudy at the Wilma

The fall of the house of Kafka

Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to one of the hardest working actresses currently on a Philadelphia stage: Jenn Harris. Harris plays Roxanne, the harried stage manager, in the Wilma Theater’s production of The Understudy. For 90-odd minutes she flails, she screams, she runs, she punches, she contorts her face, she mops the floor, she screams some more. Even her moppet hair gets into the action. Tied up, let down, entangled in her headset. Only when she is sitting behind her desk, does she — and her hair — get fleeting moments of rest.

Harris’s perpetual motion underscores this energetic, frenetic, and hysterical (in every sense of the word) production.

It’s the first rehearsal for Harry (Cody Nickell), the new understudy in a successful Broadway run of a lost Kafka play. During this rehearsal, he must work with the stage manager Roxanne — whom he may have a sordid history with — and one of the play’s stars Jake (Brad Coolidge), an action-movie star whose recent film just opened to $67 million — a film which Harry may have auditioned for.

Cody Nickell’s Harry is perfect as our snobbish, self-proclaimed “not bitter” bitter connection into the play. Beginning with Harry’s opening monologue, the moments he is left alone onstage and talks directly to the audience are true highlights — with quirky mannerisms, great delivery, and perfect comic timing.

Harris deserves attention for her histrionic and F-bomb-dropping Roxanne. With her Gumby-like countenance, there are gleeful moments of hilarity that bring huge laughs. I did wish these highs were balanced with subtler, quieter moments. While those do happen, usually during scenes where another character goes to the dressing rooms (a clunky plot device to enable the other actors to interact), there are very few. Instead, for the majority of the play Roxanne is dialed up to 11.

The immensely likable Brad Coolidge makes the most of the action star Jake, the play’s comic straight man. But never given the comedic physicality or dialogue that makes the other characters truly memorable, Coolidge gets little opportunity to show depth or dimension.

Written by Theresa Rebeck (Mauritius and Omnium Gatherum) and directed by David Kennedy, this three-actor, one-act play brims with laughter and energy. And that’s saying a lot for a piece centering on Kafka existentialism.

The Understudy is playing through January 30. Click here for tickets.