While we pine for Lisa Kudrow and Patrick King to deliver a third season of The Comeback for HBO, there's a new actress ready to break our hearts while making us smile. Filmed in the mocumentary style made popular by Christopher Guest, the new web series Understudies introduces us to Astoria Bagg-Buggett. Played by Elisabth Gray, who co-created the show along with Daniel Zimbler, the plucky actress is making her Broadway debut as the understudy to the female lead in Twilight at Tiffany's, a cross pollination of two popular franchises.
So, why understudies? Why Twilight at Tiffany's? Well, Elisabeth Gray made her own Broadway debut understudying Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke in the Broadway production of Breakfast at Tiffany's. While not an exact replica of her experiences on the failed show, Understudies is loosely inspired by the behind the scenes goings on. "I really did have to sit there for eight to 10 hours every day, watching people act," Gray explains. "I had a lot of time to think, and I would vent to Daniel [Zimbler] about the experience I was having, and he'd say 'Wow! That's really funny. Maybe we should make something out of that.'"
Don't get it twisted. While hysterical, Understudies isn't some dishy tell-all. "I think it's a lot of fun. I don't think we stay too close to Breakfast at Tiffany's in any way, other than the name," Zimbler says. Gray agrees, adding: "I would say that fact is always stranger than fiction, and I will leave it there."
The comedy series manages to combine a lot of heart and a ton of heartache. Astoria is thrilled to be making her Broadway debut, but her mother, played with a sharply acerbic tongue by Alison Fraser, is a former Broadway star herself. Without hesitation she eviscerates Astoria and confides in the interview moments that she never had to stoop so low as to be an understudy in her career. Here we see the juxtaposition of a storied has-been and a charismatic actress trying to get her foot in the door.
This conflict tugs on the heartstrings of the audience as we root for Astoria to make it, but can't help but love laughing at her mother's cruelly lacerative wit. All of this is highly effective because of the mocumentary style, which allows Understudies to give audiences truly candid insight into the characters. "It's [mocumentary] just the most expressive form," explains Zimbler. "The fact that you can get insights, you can cut to what someone's thinking, and it's not simply what they're thinking, it's what their presenting. It's counterpoint comedy, so you see them presenting themselves as people, and then you see what they're like in the room. I think that kind of tension is often funny."
Of course, the best thing about Understudies is, as celebrated Broadway actress Elizabeth Ashley says, "It works like a charm." Guest starring as Astoria's grandmother Dotty Buggett, a legend of the New York stage, Ashley says, "It is the rarest of things--perfect satire--because it is brutally hilarious and at the same time heartbreaking. That is almost never achieved."
Season 1 of Understudies is available at UnderstudiestheShow.com.