Jason Haws is one of Olympia's favorite actors. He is an actor's actor, the one other actors study to see how it's done. Not that I have any confirmation of that from other actors, but if they don't study him they should. He has more plays under his belt than I can count, and they range from Shakespeare (comedies and tragedies), to contemporary drama and farce. His death scene as Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream at Harlequin 10 years ago was one of the funniest single scenes this reviewer has ever witnessed, and his turn as The Elephant Man was simply astounding. He also excels in children's shows such as The Wind in the Willows at Olympia Family Theater. It seems there is little he can't do with style.
Like other great actors from Katharine Hepburn to Jack Nicholson, not to mention great local actors such as Brian Jansen and Pug Bujeaud, he has the rare ability of totally becoming whatever character he plays while remaining unmistakably himself. It's all about the range of expression both nuanced and outrageous, it's about perfectly timed pauses (which often remind me of Jack Benny in his day), and about visibly listening to the other actors on stage when he is just in the background of the scene.
Haws is currently performing with two other outstanding actors in The Understudy at Harlequin Productions, a play in which he pulls off a scene to rival the death scene I mentioned before. In this case, it's a drinking scene, which had me laughing out loud.
The other actors in this show, whose performances equal Haws's, are Jessica Weaver and David S. Hogan, both Seattle actors. I have never seen Hogan, who has an impressive resume of stage, screen and television performances. I have seen Weaver only once before, in last season's The Two Gentlemen of Verona, also at Harlequin and coincidentally with Haws. These three actors riff off one another like jazz musicians who have been jamming together for decades.
The play, written by Theresa Rebeck and directed by Scot Whitney, has all the earmarks of a great farce, but much more than that, it is a sensitive and revealing look into the hearts and minds of the three characters: Harry the understudy (Haws), Jake the Hollywood action-adventure star now trying to become legit on Broadway (Hogan), and Roxanne (Weaver) the stage manager who is in over her head trying to corral the two volatile actors and her assistant stage manager (never actually seen on stage), who is stoned and can't do anything right.
The situation is this: an unknown play by Franz Kafka has been discovered and is now playing on Broadway. After playing to sold-out houses eight shows a week for months, they bring in an understudy. The entire play (The Understudy, not the fictitious Kafka play) takes place during the course of the one and only rehearsal with Harry the understudy. Harry and Jake perform scenes from the Kafka masterpiece, and their rehearsal is constantly interrupted as they break into arguments about how to play the scenes and about their personal relationships, and are further interrupted by Laura the ASM who brings up the wrong lights and turns the lights on and off at the wrong times, who brings in the wrong pneumatic set pieces and cues the wrong sound effects. The rehearsal, in other words, is a mess.
But it is not the obvious goofs that make this play successful, it is the interaction of the characters. All the laughs grow out of the believable relationships between the characters, which lifts it far above your average farce. It is funny, it is touching, it is real, and these three actors put on a demonstration of how comedy should be done.
The Understudy, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, through March 25, State Theater, 202 4th Ave. E., Olympia, $20-$34, 360.786.0151, harlequinproductions.org