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Justin Kirk Goes Back to the Boards After seven years, the actor returns to New York theatre with "The Understudy"
By Linda Buchwald

Justin Kirk is an actor, so it stands to reason that portraying an actor on stage wouldn’t be a stretch. But his role in The Understudy, now playing at the Roundabout, is a serious departure from his actual life.

A backstage satire from Theresa Rebeck, the play stages a put-in rehearsal for Harry (Kirk), understudy to the action movie star Jake (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) in a production of a fictional Franz Kafka drama. To complicate matters, Harry has a romantic history with the show’s stage manager (Julie White).

Asked if he and his character are the same type of actor, Kirk jokes, “Probably about the same: a lot of whining, a lot of bitching.” He adds, though, that he doesn’t think Harry is prepared to play his role. “I have a feeling that maybe Harry got the job recently,” Kirk says. “I don’t know that he has the chance to really know the script inside and out at this point, so I would hope that’s one difference between us. The one thing you can do as an actor is really know the script inside and out.”

Though Kirk has never been an understudy, he has replaced an actor in a role. “I’ve gone through the process of learning the show while someone else is doing it, and watching them and having to get it together without a lot of opportunity to be up on the stage rehearsing with the other actors,” he says. “It’s pretty scary.” 

Given that experience, Kirk not only sympathizes with his character, but also with Josh Casaubon, who is the real-life understudy to Kirk and Gosselaar. “We think about our poor guys out there watching this,” Kirk says.

Of course, chances are good that Casaubon will never go on. When Kirk was in the Broadway premiere of Love! Valour! Compassion!, he was the only cast member never to miss a performance. 

That’s a striking reminder of his roots. Though he’s best known for his television work—he was Prior Walter in the HBO film of Angels in America, and he plays the lovable stoner Andy Botwin on Showtime’s Weeds—he has a long history on the boards. He hasn’t had a New York role since 2002, however, and he’s been itching to return. When Scott Ellis, who directed The Understudy and has directed several episodes of Weeds, showed him Rebeck’s script, he knew he’d found his vehicle. 

“Theresa writes really great parts for actors. The three of us all have these great scenery-chewing parts,” Kirk says. “[The play] is about the theatre stuff and everything, but really it’s about these three people and the things that they want and aren’t getting and the things that they learn are more important to them as the ninety minutes go by.”

Kirk says his return to theatre was easier than he imagined. In television and film, you can forget your lines at the end of the day, and he was worried about fully memorizing a stage role, especially because he has so many lines and monologues. So far, that hasn’t been a problem. “After a while it’s just in your body,” he says.

Another tricky element is mastering the imaginary Kafka play that Rebeck embeds into her main story (those scenes are influenced by her deep knowledge of Kafka's writing). Since Harry and Jake rehearse scenes out of order, the audience gets a disjointed view of the fictional work, but Kirk and Gosselaar put all those scenes together and ran through them chronologically in order to get a better understanding of the play-within-a-play.

The work has paid off. Though his character is struggling just to make it through rehearsal, Kirk himself feels back at home in the theatre. “As far as doing a play goes, it’s a pretty sweet deal,” he says.

Linda Buchwald has written for The Sondheim Review, PopMatters, International Musician, and Making Music Magazine. She blogs for Critic-O-Meter and her own blog, Pataphysical Science.