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Originally published Friday, February 1, 2013 at 5:00 AM

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Comic angst, alive and well on Seattle stages

Reviews of two plays in Seattle: “A Behanding in Spokane,” at Theater Schmeater, and “The Understudy,” at Seattle Public Theater.

Seattle Times theater critic

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Local theaters introduce to Seattle two recent works by well-known playwrights, both in the spirit of Franz Kafka, whose gift of black comedy keeps on giving:

“The Understudy”

Theresa Rebeck’s cleverly angsty satire “The Understudy” asks you to imagine that a “lost” play by Franz Kafka, echoing themes of his novels “The Trial” and “The Castle,” has been discovered. And it’s a Broadway hit.

Even more absurd: Imagine the leads are played by two action-hero movie stars — one referred to only as “Bruce” (as in Mr. Willis), and the other, a slickly cool, A-list B-actor, Jake, enacted with panache by the excellent Mike Dooly, in Kelly Kitchens’ adroit staging of the play for Seattle Public Theatre.

We only hear snatches of that Kafka script, as a flustered stage manager, Roxanne (Brenda Joyner), tries amid repeated interruptions to rehearse Jake’s new understudy — a scuffling actor, Harry (John Ulman), with whom Roxanne might share some painful history.

But as they commune between performances, on a darkened stage with erratic lighting and scenery changes supplied by a phantom tech booth operator, Roxanne, Henry and Jake let their hair down and let ’er rip — as the script rips the Hollywood schlock movie industry, the eternal insecurity of the theater world, and (thank you, Franz!) the dilemma of the alienated individual at the mercy of an unfeeling and confounding universe. Oh, that.

Much of “The Understudy” is devoted to the amusing business of envying and analyzing, apologizing and arguing, and, taking meaningful cellphone calls. If Jake is highest on the pecking order, it doesn’t mean he can’t pick up a trick or two from the unlucky but talented Harry — or that he’s exempt from fear and rejection. And while Roxanne may attract both men, could she have much use for either of them?

As a three-way character study, “The Understudy” does not dig very deep. And its mockery of the egotism and insularity of show folk isn’t exactly original.

But Rebeck, a prolific TV and theater writer, has devised a nifty conceit, and she’s a whiz at dialogue that keeps the dynamics popping and shifting. She also isn’t entirely cynical, or unsympathetic, toward those passionately dedicated to a profession of inescapable existential turmoil. It’s great that these good actors make you sympathize too, even while you’re laughing.

“The Understudy,” through Feb. 17 at Seattle Public Theater at the Bathouse, 7312 W. Green Lake Drive N., Seattle (206-524-1300 or www.seattlepublictheater.org)

“A Behanding in Spokane”

What might Franz K. make of Anglo-Irish dramatist Martin McDonagh’s highly theatrical sense of perverse absurdity? Would he find a kindred spirit?

“A Behanding in Spokane” is not as psychologically or metaphorically suggestive as earlier McDonagh forays into profane and bloody, topsy-turvy realms. So let’s just call the play, at Theater Schmeater, a gleeful heap of outrageousness with an existentialist glimmer or two.

Spearing political correctness at every turn, this caper brings a glowering Spokane native (Carmichael, played by Gordon Carpenter), on an epic search for his missing hand, to a shabby old hotel in who-knows-where, U.S.A.

He’s come to meet with Toby, a fast-talking, minor-league black drug dealer (Corey Spruill) and Toby’s overly chatty white girlfriend (Hannah Mootz). They’ve got a hand to sell Carmichael.

Naturally, the deal goes hilariously awry. Like an Old Testament heavy, lumbering and leering through a Martin Scorsese gangster flick, Carmichael doesn’t take double-crosses lightly. And as Toby tries to cajole and weasel his way out of the jam, and a spacey night clerk (Brandon Ryan) butts into the caper, things just get nuttier and more menacing. (Not to mention more playfully gruesome.)

As bleak and grisly as his humor gets, McDonagh’s oeuvre is also not entirely devoid of sympathy or (in this case) mercy. Spruill and Mootz are very funny, as kids you root for despite their near-lethal cluelessness. Carpenter is physically persuasive (if vocally stiff). But it’s Ryan who craftily adds a waft of masochistic melancholy, in a loser’s yearning to become some kind of hero — even a Pyrrhic one.

Peggy Gannon also gets high marks for her astute direction, and Michael Mowery for designing one of those depressingly nondescript hotel rooms where bizarre things are meant to happen.

“A Behanding in Spokane,” through Feb. 23 at Theater Schmeater, 1500 Summit Ave., Seattle (800-838-3006 or www.brownpapertickets.com).

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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