When those with only a passing interest in theatre (and film, for that matter) dismiss a production and state, “It’s only a play,” they have no clue how that sounds to a theatre lover. It’s like nails on a chalkboard; a fork scraping a plate, or worse: Styrofoam squeaking. In the world of showbiz, there’s no such thing as only a play. Certainly not for the producer, the director, the actors, the wannabe actor, the playwright, and the critic – all the characters that go to make the cast of Terrence McNally’s biting and somewhat mean-spirited, but undeniably funny Broadway satire, It’s Only A Play, now playing at Phoenix Theatre until February 11.
For those seven characters, waiting to hear what the powerful critic of the New York Times will publish after the opening night of their new production, The Golden Egg, the play is everything. Literally, everything. At least, that is, until it closes and everyone moves on to the next project.
That’s the setup. First-time producer, Julia Budder (a likably ditzy Ashley Stults who constantly misquotes classic movie lines) is hosting an opening night party at her luxury Manhattan home. The party is downstairs, but the action, for those who count, is upstairs in Julia’s expansive bedroom, courtesy of scenic designer Douglas Clarke’s excellent set. That’s where those directly involved will gather, argue, bitch, shamelessly name-drop, pitch insults with the precision of an Olympic javelin thrower, and anxiously wait for the critic’s review.
The power of the Broadway critic is something that for those who live regionally, away from New York, have never quite understood. They’ve heard about it, and they’ve seen it comically presented in those old Hollywood musicals that dealt with Broadway of the past, but it’s never quite registered; it’s more like a storytelling device, a fantasy, usually played for laughs, but not something that happens in the real world. Surely a reviewer’s opinion is just a singular opinion, they might insist, one that has no more value than that of anyone else. After all, it’s only a play. Well they’d be wrong. And worse, for McNally’s comedy when it first appeared in 1978, all set to open on Broadway, the play was actually canceled because of negative reviews during the tryout. A play about a play that might have to close because of a bad review, closed because of bad reviews.
At the time, McNally’s ego was said to have been severely punctured. But he gave it some time, then rolled up his sleeves, revisited the script, re-opened the show off-off Broadway in ‘82, then again with more rewrites off-Broadway in ‘85, then with a newer Los Angeles version in ‘92. Eventually it opened on Broadway 2014. And it’s mostly that 2014 version you’ll see at Phoenix Theatre.
Within minutes of the play’s opening scene, famous names are shamelessly dropped like free samples out of an upturned bucket. Josh Groban, Oprah, Kelly Rippa and (Lord, help us) Ryan Seacrest are mentioned within seconds of each other. “We both dated Ellen Degeneres,” states TV actor, James Wicker (Rusty Ferracane, funny and effectively vulnerable, just as the insecure character requires) to wannabe actor but currently the hat and coat checker, Gus (Tony Latham, who gets all the best exit lines based on something his overly eager character was told but doesn’t quite understand).
The jokes come fast and furious, and there’s much to quote, but when the payoff is limited to the famous name-drop, what brought the house down on Broadway is in danger of only receiving a muted laugh when played regionally. When a quote from a critic’s review states that Harvey Fierstein has a more masculine presence than James Wicker, local audiences with only that passing interest in theatre might smile because it sounds as if it’s funny, but they might not actually get why. Despite Fierstein’s considerable work as an actor, a playwright, and the possessor of a distinctive, gravel sounding voice, outside of the great White Way, and to the surprise of those who live and mix with those in a theatrical bubble, he’s hardly a name or a box-office draw.
The danger of the muted laugh may even extend to a joke about the author himself. When Pashsa Yamotahari, as playwright Peter Austin, declares that as he entered the theatre the crowds outside were cheering for the author, they were referring to Terrence McNalley who was standing behind him. It’s a decent though unexpected joke, but as hard as it might be for those who follow theatre to understand, unlike on Broadway, many won’t know who Terrence McNalley is (despite the Phoenix Theatre program on their laps).
But among the famous names that we hear but never see, there’s also many great stand-alone quips. True, they still need an appreciation of the business and an understanding of the types who work in it, but they’re enormously, funny. “Call me old fashioned,” states Wicker when discussing the differing types of presentation for a theatrical production, “But give me a chair and phone during the exposition.” Then there’s the drug-addled diva of Broadway, Virginia Noyes (a hilarious and unexpectedly foul-mouthed Debra K. Stevens) who declares, “I do a lot of self destructive things, but I draw the line at television!” Now, that’s funny, especially if you love theatre.
In addition to cast members already mentioned, both D. Scott Withers as Ira Drew, a critic who is as equally insecure as the actors he’s there to review, and Toby Yatso (an actor whose energy is never less than a hundred percent) as English director Frank Finger, elicit big laughs. “They put me behind Chris Christie,” complains Ira of his opening night seating arrangement. “I could hardly see!”
But the most fun to watch is Pasha Yamotahari as the playwright. Despite the overall broadness of all the characters – none of these ‘R’ rated, self-obsessed, barb throwing fools are particularly likable – it’s the nervous quality of Yamotahari’s facial reactions to any oncoming criticisms that keep you watching him, even when the center of attention should be on someone else. In a play where everyone is playing a theme, his Peter Austin is surprisingly and realistically sympathetic. Watch his eyebrows knit as he listens to what he hopes will be good news; it’s the expression your beloved dog has when it realizes you’re leaving the house and it doesn’t really want you to go.
Director Matthew Wiener’s proven affinity for farcical comedy is clearly evident. He draws the broadest of broad gestures out his cast and keeps the action moving at such an effective breakneck speed you may not notice that there’s hardly a plot at all, just a setup and the obsession of what a New York critic might write. Ben Brantley, another famous name-drop, is the real New York Times theatre critic. He’s talked of so often, it’s as if he’s the eighth member of the cast. You almost expect him to enter at the end and take a bow along with everyone else. Except, of course, like many of the play’s references appreciated most by those whose hair stands on end when they hear someone claim that what they’ve just seen was only a play, no one outside of NYC would know who he is.
Pictures Courtesy of Reg Madison Photography
It’s Only A Play continues at Phoenix Theatre until February 11