Waiting in the wings, practicing role of patience

Actor Christopher Fairbanks (left), understudy to actors Ed Harris and Bill Pullman in Beth Henley’s, “The Jacksonian,” stands on the set of the play at the Geffen Theater in Westwood, Calif.

LOS ANGELES – The office buildings of downtown Los Angeles shield the sun as Christopher Fairbanks whips his ’97 BMW through traffic. He’s spent the afternoon with his drama students and has no time to waste if he hopes to get to the Geffen Playhouse a half-hour before curtain.

As he swings north onto the Hollywood Freeway, he starts working his lines, an opening monologue with a touch of Southern drawl. His character, a dentist, is on the phone to mother, soon having to explain why he’s not working.

“Hello, Mama. ...We’re doing fine. How’re you? ... Not a thing to worry about. It’s a lull, a lull is circular, it’s round, in the end it’s not a lull ...”

He draws out the vowels and lets the beats fall between the lines. He’s recited this speech over and over and relishes its rhythm and language.

“I don’t know, it could be people are taking better care of their teeth, fluoride, dental floss. It’s never one thing; it’s an amalgam, to use a dental analogy. ...”

Fairbanks doesn’t expect anyone will see his performance. He’s an understudy for “The Jacksonian,” and neither Bill Pullman nor Ed Harris, whose roles he has studied, have missed a show.

If Fairbanks gets to Westwood early, he’ll pick up some takeout. The play runs 90 minutes, enough time for him to eat in the Green Room, where the play is broadcast on a closed-circuit monitor, prepare for tomorrow’s class and be home before 10.

“Uh huh I know. ...The fact is, unfortunately, we can’t come Christmas Day. ... Susan doesn’t want to make the drive. She wants to stay home. Have Christmas at home. ...”

“The Jacksonian” by Beth Henley is a portrait of a failing marriage darkened by the violence during Mississippi’s Freedom Summer in 1964. For almost two months, Fairbanks studied, practiced and rehearsed and is ready to slip back in time as bartender Fred Weber or dentist Bill Perch, should the need arise.

But he is just as content to stay offstage. He knows ticket holders would be disappointed not to see the leads.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he says, “I love having an audience. I want the recognition as an actor, and I’m confident of my performance, but as an understudy, I don’t want to deprive the audience of the work of these actors and the chemistry they have developed with one another.”

Fairbanks has worked as an actor in this city for 14 years and has been cast as an understudy for six previous productions at the Geffen. He appreciates the paycheck and counts in his repertoire the ability to play this invisible role, a job he takes as seriously as if he were in front of a full house every night.

Fairbanks was living the life of an actor in Los Angeles when he pulled into the Arco station near his house and got a call from his agent.

The Geffen wanted him, no audition needed. Phyllis Schuringa, casting director, had consulted with the director Robert Falls and thought he’d be perfect.

Schuringa remembered Fairbanks’ audition to be an understudy for the 2008 production of Donald Margulies’ “Shipwrecked!”

She also knew that he had the temperament for the work. Not all actors, she says, can be understudies.