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Good Humor: Playwright Theresa Rebeck Pens a Comedy

The daring playwright Theresa Rebeck tackles Kafka and jokes in her latest work "The Understudy."

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If literary homicide were a crime, Theresa Rebeck would be serving a rather lengthy sentence. In a recent tide of work, including “The Bells,” “The Water’s Edge” and “Mauritius,” the playwright has managed to kill off an impressive array of characters.

“Three plays running, I’ve killed someone,” she muses as she does a mental body count. “My sister Martha said to me, ‘Could you just write a comedy?’ I understood the sort of sad yearning for a good comedy and I thought, I should just write one.”

This story first appeared in the October 27, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The result is “The Understudy,” a tale of a rehearsal gone hilariously awry, opening in a Roundabout production at the Laura Pels Theatre Nov. 5. In the hyperintelligent work, Justin Kirk is Harry, a talented but flailing actor, who is understudying for action movie star Jake (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) in an undiscovered Kafka play. Julie White is Roxanne, their long-suffering stage manager and former paramour of Harry’s. Within the span of 90 minutes, “The Understudy” manages to skewer everything from the ego-numbing indignities of the theater world to the epidemic of celebrities trying their hands at Broadway.

“These are people who are out of control of their lives and there are forces they don’t understand acting on them in destructive ways…and that’s the very essence of Kafka’s world,” explains Rebeck between sips of tea from a mug decorated with Freud’s likeness. “I think actors are very complicated and charming and neurotic and there’s something I find beautiful in their humanity, that they take so much rejection and get out there every morning and do auditions.”

Rebeck’s affection is clearly mirrored in her cast’s enthusiastic romp through her piece.

“Theresa writes for actors so the three of us all have these superjuicy things to do where we have not only high emotional stakes and clear ideas about who these people are, but we also get to send out big fat softballs of jokes,” says Kirk.

Indeed, the sheer variety of her focus — from sexual power struggles in “Spike Heels” to the Alaskan Gold Rush in “The Bells” — has proved both an asset and a source of frustration in a critical community that enjoys categorizing artists. Rebeck does not suffer descriptors like “feminist” or “prolific” (she has upward of 20 plays to her name) very well.

“It was startling to me where the mere fact of being a woman who writes about women would get you labeled as someone with an agenda,” she says. “I love the humanity of my characters and I love the humanity of the audience. And I still see theater as a mass lesson in empathy.”

“She’s not genre-bound,” says Doug Hughes, who directed Rebeck’s Broadway debut “Mauritius.” “I’ve always thought that she’s so fearless and she crosses a lot of different boundaries.”

Certainly Rebeck’s path speaks to her defiance of conventionality. Growing up in Cincinnati one of six kids to an engineer father, she realized her love of playwriting in high school.

“I was like, ‘You like to write, you like to act, why don’t you be a playwright?’ It was A plus B equals C,” she recalls.

An M.F.A., a Ph.D. and a Pulitzer-nomination (for cowriting “Omnium Gatherum”) later, it is still a decision that bewilders her family (her siblings are all engineers, scientists or social workers). “I would come home for holidays and relatives would roll their eyes. It wasn’t an encouraging environment.…I’m still something of an oddity to them.”

She is often as much an oddity to communities beyond the Midwest. In addition to her large body of plays, she has earned her keep writing and producing for television shows like “NYPD Blue” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” And this spring brings her second novel, “Twelve Rooms With a View” (Random House), a story of a young woman inheriting a palatial Central Park West apartment under suspicious circumstances.

“I felt like [fiction writing] was something I wanted to try and I was very intimidated by it,” explains Rebeck, who lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Jess Lynn (a former stage manager), and their two children. “Other people climb mountains; I thought I’d try writing a novel.”

Her plays, though, always take preeminence: she has two more in the pipeline, including “Poor Behavior,” on which Hughes is already at work.

“I say this to flatter her, she is in danger of becoming an establishment figure,” he says. “You know a new Theresa Rebeck play will be produced.”

Rebeck has a more modest way of describing her life.

“I go to the gym, I write and I hang out with my kids,” she shrugs. “That’s all I do.”

 

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