The drama behind the drama

By James Sanford

Williamston Theatre's 'Understudy' finds comedy amid chaos

Rob Roznowski knows what it's like to be an understudy and, to put it mildly, it’s not a line of work he recommends.

“It’s the most upsetting job in the world,” he said in a phone interview last week. He recalled understudying Evan Pappas, the lead in a 1993 production of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David/Neil Simon musical “Promises, Promises” at Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn. As Tom Petty once sang, the waiting is the hardest part, a sentiment Roznowski can stand behind: He had to be prepared to take over at any time if Pappas was sick and, in keeping with the show’s title, there were plenty of promises Roznowski would get his shot.

They usually turned out to be false alarms. “It was always, ‘He’s not feeling well today,’” Roznowski said. “Then, just when you think you’re going on, it was ‘Oh, he’s feeling fine!’”

“Promises” ran for almost two months, but Roznowski didn’t play the lead until the show’s final days. “It wasn’t until literally the last week of performances,” he said. “And then I went on three shows in a row.”

At least he had his chance to shine, something that isn’t likely to happen for Harry, the understudy in Theresa Rebeck’s comedy “The Understudy,” opening Thursday at Williamston Theatre. Harry (Tony Caselli) has been hired to back up Jake (Drew Parker of “Dead Man´s Shoes”), an up-and-coming actor who’s taking time out from filming disaster movies to do a Broadway production of “Kafka’s undiscovered masterpiece.”

We never meet Jake’s co-star, Bruce, although he seems to be a megastar along the lines of George Clooney or Brad Pitt: He commands $22 million per film, while Jake admits he only gets $2.3 million.

As for Harry, stage manager Roxanne (Michelle Held) sums up his place in the theater world in no uncertain terms: “Bruce is Richard III, Jake is Henry V and you are Spear Carrier No. 7,” she snaps. Roxanne has a bumpy track record with Harry and a career path that’s littered with missed opportunities and broken dreams, all of which come back to haunt her as she tries to hold together a chaotic rehearsal full of technical glitches and interpersonal tensions.

“It’s not so much a play about theater,” Roznowski said. “It’s more about what it means to be anybody’s second-in-command.”

Rebeck, whose other plays include “Bad Dates,” “Mauritius” and the Pulitzer Prize-nominated “Omnium,” wrote “The Understudy” almost four years before she became the head writer of NBC’s “Smash,” a different kind of backstage story about the development of a musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe.

Perhaps fittingly, Roznowski came to Williamston immediately after finishing work on Michigan State University’s “Legally Blonde,” which included a sizable cast, splashy sets and an automated scenery system. He said making the adjustment to an intimate comedy with minimal props has been a snap.

“No moving scenery? Heaven!” Roznowski said, with a laugh. “There’s just three people? Great!”

The casting of Caselli, better known as Williamston Theatre’s artistic director, “kind of came up unexpectedly,” Roznowski said. “When I read the play, I was thinking Harry is sort of like the Richard Dreyfuss character in ‘The Goodbye Girl,’ in terms of the way he handles the business of being in theater. So I talked to Tony and said, ‘You’d be awesome for this part.’ The opening monologue that Harry has, that’s the way Tony talks.”

Next on Roznowski’s schedule is a trip around the world — sort of. He’ll direct playwright Mark Brown’s five-actor version of Jules Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Days” for MSU’s Summer Circle Theatre; it opens June 20.

‘The Understudy’

Through June 17

Williamston Theatre

122 S. Putnam St., Williamston

Preview 8 p.m. Thursday, May 24; all seats $15

Friday, May 25 through June 17: 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; 3 p.m. June 2, 9 and 16

$20 Thursdays; $25 Fridays and Saturday evenings; $22 Saturday matinees and Sundays; $10 students with ID; $2 off any show for seniors 65 and over

(517) 655-7469