Maia Madison remembers a recent Geffen Playhouse preview of Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress, Rivers' show-business memoir co-written with Douglas Bernstein and Denis Markell. (See New Reviews.) As Madison sat down before the show, a woman next to her opened her program and read an insert announcing Rivers' understudy.

Timothy Norris

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“There's an understudy for Joan?” the woman gasped to Madison. “Who in their right mind would stay? I'd want my money back. The only reason I bought this series was for Annette Bening and Joan Rivers.”

“I absolutely don't blame you,” Madison replied, leaving out one detail: She is Rivers' understudy. The story of how the 33-year-old Madison got the momentous yet paradoxically unenviable task of understudying the role belonging to a 74-year-old comedy legend acting in her own autobiographical tour de force turns the stereotype of show-biz breaks on its head. Madison began the journey as a reader for the show's auditions, giving cues to actors who sought the play's three other parts. Rather than simply read lines, she spoke them impersonating Rivers. This created an unforeseen problem, because the auditioning actors had a hard time keeping straight faces for director Bart DeLorenzo and casting director Phyllis Schuringa.

“I do the first audition as Joan,” Madison recalls, “and Bart and Phyllis are giggling, saying, 'Wow, you do that really well.' And I'm, 'Well, I'm a Jew from New York — it's not like a stretch.'” Madison cautions interviewers that she speaks fast, and her mile-a-minute patter, combined with careening ad-libs, confirms her warning.

After four days, Madison assumed she'd no longer be needed to read once callbacks began. Not so — Rivers wanted to watch the callbacks and Madison was told she was expected to stay awhile longer.

“I'm sorry,” she recalls saying. “You want me to be Joan Rivers in front of Joan Rivers?” But Madison found Rivers completely supportive of her impersonation, and before long she was asked to be Rivers' understudy.

“Joan could not be lovelier and is completely aware of the situation,” Madison says of the strange development. Rivers, she says, truly understands that imitation is the highest form of flattery.

Indeed, Madison grew up on Manhattan's Upper East Side, mimicking everyone around her, from her Hungarian grandmother to the family's Guatemalan housekeeper. Even as a very young child, though, she didn't feel she was impersonating people so much as inhabiting them. Which is why she believes her personification of Rivers captures the entertainer's essence while not being a pitch-perfect imitation.

“I'm not really doing a Joan Rivers 'Can we tawk?' impression,” she says, waving outstretched hands in the familiar Rivers parody. “I am playing any member of my family on the East Coast who has a little bit of a cold and sounds a little bit hoarse.”

“Of course we have an understudy — it's a four-character play, for Chrissake!” Gil Cates, the Geffen Playhouse's producing director, has taken a break from his annual job as the Academy Awards executive-producer to answer questions about the seemingly odd situation in which the author-performer of a memoir-driven stage work has an understudy ready to step in. Cates says that a one-person show would simply be canceled in the event its performer were unable to go onstage, but Joan Rivers is a play with other actors and different options. So what happens if its star has a cold?

“Some people will stay and see the show,” Cates speculates. “Others will ask to have their tickets replaced at a later date. I know I would be really pissed if I had dinner, went to the theater and was told the play was canceled. I'd rather be able to decide whether to stay and see the show or try to rebook tickets.”

Cates points to theater's storied past of understudies suddenly pressed into the breach.

“Albert Finney once told me of how he stood backstage at a performance of Coriolanus,” Cates says, “listening to the announcement being made that he would be playing the part that night instead of Laurence Olivier, and hearing the audience of 1,600 people groan at the news.”

Still, adds Cates about Madison's prospects of taking over for Rivers, “It is my sincere belief that no one will see her but the director.”

Says Rivers, “I truly think it is insane to have an understudy for an autobiographical show — other than Meryl Streep, of course (who begged for the job!). My advice to Maia is, 'Look out, bitch. I'd come back from the grave to make it onstage.'”

Although Madison did not participate in a rehearsal of Joan Rivers until after it opened, she fondly remembers the first run-throughs.

“Bart said, 'Joan, you remember Maia, she's going to be your understudy — don't drink anything she gives you,'” Madison says. “I said, 'Joan, if you get sick I'll kill you.'”

“Sweetheart,” Rivers replied, “I hate to break it to you, but in 40 years I've never missed a performance. I went on the night my mother died.”

Madison is aware of how drastically her replacement of Rivers would change the evening.

“If I go on,” she says, “we won't be trying to fool the audience. It'll become a different kind of performance piece — the story of Joan's life as interpreted by an actress.”

Madison is at every Joan Rivers performance and, like any understudy, must always be ready within five minutes to go on for Rivers, even in midperformance. And so each night she watches patrons' reactions as they read the little program insert acknowledging Ms. Rivers' understudy. Madison experiences the unique dilemma of an actress who's gotten a break but dreads having to capitalize on it. She hopes to become the Maytag Repairman, instead of Ruby Keeler getting her big break in 42nd Street.

Madison's road from New York to L.A. included a nearly six-year stop-off in Chicago, where, after attending Northwestern University, she became a successful portrait and head-shot photographer under her birth name, Maia Rosenfeld. (She still maintains her business there.) At the prodding of a casting director, she separated her photography and acting careers with a name change — adopting the name of the New York avenue she grew up on to become Maia Madison, actress. After that, she landed roles at the Goodman Theatre and on Joan Cusack's TV vehicle, What About Joan. Inevitably, she took the plunge and, in January 2002, drove with a friend to Los Angeles, where her success roll hit the brakes. Madison had followed friends' exceptionally bad advice to arrive during television's pilot season.

“I didn't understand that during pilot season no one's going to take a meeting with you because everyone's insanely busy,” she says. “My first eight months here were the hardest in my life. When I came out of it I could say, 'Oh, that's clinical depression. Good to know!'”

Not wishing to return to Chicago defeated, she bided her time, booking commercial auditions but staying away from stage roles.

“The holy grail in Chicago is theater,” she says, “but here I found a lot of the theater was a bunch of people trying to put a movie onstage so they could get a development deal in film.”

A low point came when she attended a horror-film writer's play, in which an actor friend of hers killed eight people. For head-wound sound effects, the playwright swung a golf club into a watermelon backstage.

“I thought, 'I don't want to be any part of this,'” Madison says.

Her view changed, however, when she saw a friend performing in the Open Fist Theatre Company's 2004 production of The Devils.

“I said, 'Wow! Wait a minute — here's this insanely large theater space where this company is producing theater on a grand scale.' It was clearly not a bunch of people trying to get on a TV show, saying, 'Please cast me in your procedural crime drama.' They were doing Dostoyevsky!” She soon joined the company and has remained a member to this day.

Madison says she has plenty of friends willing to occupy the seats of Geffen patrons who would take rain checks were she to fill in for Rivers.

“People who know I'm this shticky Jew from New York City say, 'Oh, I totally want to see that,'” she says. “They're either being terribly supportive or just want to see a train wreck.”

JOAN RIVERS: A WORK IN PROGRESS BY A LIFE IN PROGRESS | By JOAN RIVERS, DOUGLAS BERNSTEIN and DENIS MARKELL | Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Wstwd. | Through March 30 | (310) 208-5454 or

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