The Understudy

by Theresa Rebeck
directed by David Kennedy
December 29, 2010January 30, 2011



Win free tickets to see The Understudy!

Kafkaesque – adjective 1. of, pertaining to, characteristic of, or resembling the literary work of Franz Kafka: the Kafkaesque terror of the endless interrogations. 2. marked by a senseless, disorienting, often menacing complexity.

As David Gardner, our Fels Dramaturg Intern states here, "When we call a situation “Kafkaesque” we mean to highlight its nightmarish atmosphere of horror and despair."

Have you ever felt that a moment in your life was totally 'Kafkaesque'?


It's okay to laugh at Kafka.

Kafka: Laughter Lost in Translation

In The Understudy, two young actors and a stage manager rehearse a newly discovered play by literary giant Franz Kafka. As in any great comedy, things go awry, and we laugh with the characters as they try to sort it all out. But what sets The Understudy apart from other comedies is the way Theresa Rebeck allows our laughter to make us more receptive to the deeper truths of her play—truths about the need to be recognized, the fear of being unknown, and the terror of feeling out of control. This is where Kafka comes in, for these are truths about which he wrote at length. By combining Kafka’s dark truths with her own knack for comedy, Rebeck creates a theatrical world where fear and laughter coexist. But much more than that, Rebeck teaches us how to read Kafka, for while this juxtaposition of horror and hilarity would seem out of synch with Kafka, whose work is generally considered to be all gloom and no mirth, Rebeck’s combination of Kafka and comedy turns out to be spot on. Reading Kafka as uniformly dreary is a misreading, due largely to decades of mistranslation.


" is actually a bit like Kafka would have us believe it is."

David Kennedy is the director of the Wilma’s upcoming production of The Understudy by Theresa Rebeck. This interview was conducted by Richard Kotulski, the Wilma’s Literary Programming Assistant and Casting Director.

RK: What draws you to The Understudy?

DK: I identify with the underlying anxiety that fuels the characters, and I enjoy the way it’s expressed in this very smart and funny writing. What’s great about The Understudy is that Theresa employs the imaginative universe of Franz Kafka as shorthand for all the ways in which we’re frustrated in the attainment of our desires by impersonal forces that, nevertheless, have a very personal effect on us. Kafka’s novels and short stories are actually comedies of a sort, but comedy infused with dread, a kind of tragic farce, as is The Understudy. To my mind that’s the best kind of comedy.

In the play we have three people, all of whom could be said