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NEW YORK — He may never appear on stage and his name isn’t on the press release, but actor Matthew Rauch, who is the understudy to all four of the male characters in The New Group’s revival of David Rabe’s “Hurlyburly,” opening tonight, considers himself the luckiest guy on, or in this case off, Broadway. “I know that there are thousands of actors who would kill to be a part of this in any way,” he says, perched in a conference room at Theatre Row on 42nd Street. “When they offered me this job, I couldn’t say no.”
Though he’d been an understudy for two of the roles in Neil Simon’s “Proposals” seven years ago, Rauch, 36, concedes that “Hurlyburly” is a much more daunting undertaking. The four characters he understudies (played by actors Ethan Hawke, Bobby Cannavale, Josh Hamilton and Wallace Shawn) have personality types that range from angry alcoholic to pedophilic executive and are embodied by men who have extraordinarily different physical attributes (Shawn is 61, short and balding, while Cannavale is 33 and over 6 feet tall). “It’s like climbing Mount Everest,” says Rauch. But it has been done before. When it premiered in 1984, a then little-known actor named Kevin Spacey was the understudy for the same roles. “Creating four really distinct characters in my head has been very helpful,” he says. “So I’ll be able to stick my brain into whatever maze I’ve created for these guys.”
Another challenge will be slipping into wardrobe, which, depending on the character, can mean anything from silky robes to skimpy bikini bottoms to a white athletic suit with matching loafers.
To learn his lines, Rauch got plenty of help from a tangible tool: “I discovered the magic of Dictaphones,” he says. “I’ve recorded myself doing the whole play.” As he flips through his roughly 150-page script, yellow-, orange-, pink- and blue-highlighted lines appear on every single page, one color for each character. And though he’s friendly with the cast, heart-to-heart conversations about each role are not taking place. “These are well-known actors doing a very famous play, there’s a lot of pressure,” he says. “You don’t want to be the guy who’s always hanging around.”
Rauch began acting at Princeton (he played Mickey in a college production of “Hurlyburly”) and went on to study at the A.R.T. Institute at Harvard. Since then, he’s done a great deal of regional theater as well as Lanford Wilson’s “Book of Days.” His TV spots include “Law & Order,” “Without a Trace” and “Jonny Zero.”
Unlike some understudies who get sweaty palms at the idea of stepping on stage, Rauch relishes the possibility. “Somebody asked me, ‘Are you scared?’” he says. “And I thought to myself, if I’m scared of doing this, I’m in the wrong business.”