Franz Kafka (1883-1924) is seen in 1906 in his native Prague. (This photo is in the public domain.) The setting of “The Understudy” is a rehearsal of a newly discovered (fictitious) Franz Kafka play. Kafka’s works are now regarded as absurdist, existential classics.

by Clark Groome
“The Understudy” starts with a bang. Literally. (That’s all I’ll say.) This smart, funny and complex Theresa Rebeck play is receiving a terrific Philadelphia premiere at the Wilma Theater, where it’ll be on view through Jan. 30.

The setting is an understudy rehearsal of a newly discovered Franz Kafka play. (No such animal exists, so far as I know.) The understudy, Harry (Cody Nickell), covers for Jake (Brad Coolidge) if Jake moves into the lead role because the star misses a performance. The play’s stage manager, Roxanne (Jenn Harris), who has never recovered from the pain she experienced when Harry left her without so much as a fare-thee-well two weeks before they were supposed to get married six years ago, oversees the rehearsal.

Harry is a journeyman actor. Jake is an action movie star whose most recent movie was a box office behemoth if by all accounts an artistic lightweight.

The interaction among the three characters is complex and engaging. While on the surface “The Understudy” is a knock-about comedy, it is really much more than that.

It deals with the nature of art and how that is related to commerce. It deals with love and how that is related to art. It deals with pragmatism and how that can get in the way of art. And it is really, really, really funny, not something you’d necessarily expect at the Wilma.

David Kennedy directs the stunning production that features Andrew Boyce’s sets, Sarah Sidman’s lighting, Maiko Matsushima’s costumes and Christopher Colucci’s sound. All are witty and impressive. The 95-minute one-act just tears along, leaving you delighted and wanting more when the three spectacular actors take their final bows.

Brad Coolidge’s Jake is a perfect action hero, handsome and ripped and yet desperate to actually do something that has real artistic value. Cody Nickell’s Harry, equally handsome, does the kind of work Jake would like to do. Truth be told, Harry would love to be in Jake’s tax bracket. They gradually grow from being contemptuous of one another to being friends and, more than that, allies and soul mates.

Jenn Harris’ Roxanne holds the whole thing together, at once Harry’s still-suffering former fiancée and the completely efficient stage manager.

While never seen, there is a fourth character, Laura, the Kafka play’s technical director. While we never meet her, we get to know her well. It says a lot about a playwright when an off-stage character is as fully drawn and as real as those actually on stage. Far too many playwrights don’t create believable characters you can actually see let alone those you can’t.

Surprisingly, the Wilma’s production of “The Understudy” is Rebeck’s first Philadelphia production, even though she has had showcases and readings here and been widely produced elsewhere. She was a candidate for the Pulitzer Prize for her “Omnium Gatherum.” Philadelphia deserves to see more of her work. I hope we do. Soon.

For tickets to “The Understudy,” receiving its Philadelphia premiere at the Wilma Theater where it runs through Jan. 30, call 215-546-7824 or visit www.wilmatheater.org