By ALAN SMASON, WYES Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out”)
At the start of this pandemic-impacted season, New Jersey’s George Street Playhouse unveiled bold plans to present four productions. The first two were one-person shows (Bad Dates and Fully Committed) filmed at a safe home provided by executive producer Sharon Karmazin. This made sense during what was still the height of the pandemic and the attendant stringent COVID restrictions.
Then, as theaters began to open up with less social distancing, another filmed piece at the home, the four-person cast of Nia Vardalos’ Tiny Beautiful Things happened in May. The final entry to this year of virtual productions is Terrence McNally’s It’s Only a Play, an inside look at a disastrous opening night with McNally’s swipes at nearly every segment and stereotype of the Broadway theatre community.
The seven-person cast was directed on stage by Kevin Cahoon and filmed at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center by Michael Boylan.
Unfortunately, McNally was one of the first victims of the COVID crisis and he wrote the piece for what was to be a short run with a stellar cast of Broadway mainstays reuniting The Producers leads Nathan Lane as snooty TV actor James Wicker and Matthew Broderick as his best friend and playwright Peter Austin.
The underlying tension is that Austin had written the part with Wicker in mind, but his friend had to bow out when his TV pilot was greenlighted for an insipid TV situation comedy. Nine years later, the show is opening on Broadway and Wicker, still smarting from the fact they haven’t held the part for him, has flown in to support Austin in his own kind of backstabbing and mercurial manner.
In this iteration, Zach Shaffer (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?) handles the role of Wicker, while Andy Groteleuschen (Tootsie) portrays the nervous playwright Austin is nervous and not on the scene on the second floor townhouse when Wicker arrives, awaiting the all-important reviews by the first night critics. Most critical is the New York Times’ chief critic Ben Brantley’s and his take on Austin’s The Golden Egg. It’s a piece that, were it real, would surely go down in history as the worst ever written.
Groteleuschen’s cast mate from Tootsie, Julie Halston, plays the drug-addled former movie star Virginia Noyes staging a comeback to the Broadway stage. One of only two women starring in the play, Halston shares the stage with Christine Toy Johnson as budding producer and tony townhouse owner Julia Budder.
Johnson, whose character’s middle name should be Malaprop, seems to get everything wrong, including why she is producing a play on her own for the first time. Halston is quite delightful as an egocentric scatterbrain and improbable Oscar winner, who lacks compassion or empathy for anyone who cannot improve her lot in life. Where most ladies might carry chewing gum or breath mints in their purses, Noyes carries a pharmacy in hers, including some illegal schedule 2 and 4 drugs.
The drugs come in handy to help her forget everything that’s happened to her including having accidentally killed someone while on a bender and being forced to call into her probation officer and wear a pesky ankle bracelet that keeps going off at all the wrong time including during the play.
Over the top narcissist and British wunderkind director Frank Finger can do no wrong. Greg Cuellar plays the tightly strung Brit, who is the darling of the Broadway scene and endeared by critics universally. Finger wishes he might one day might get a bad review just to see how it feels. Of course, with a play set entirely on a single raised disc with no furniture and a cast forced to stand the entire play, that could never happen.
Triney Sandoval as critic Ira Drew also crashes the party with McNally choosing to state what most people in theatre feel about critics: they are merely frustrated playwrights and outsiders who would so like to be on the inside and bask in their own success, but generally lack the courage to do so. Of all the characters presented by McNally, Drew probably suffers the worst indignity for he is never truly accepted, even in the midst of abject failure that draws everyone else together.
Newcomer (and real life playwright) Doug Harris plays Gus P. Head, an actor who, on his first night in New York, manages to be on the scene for the opening night of this fictional play. The fairly improbable nature of the character (whose major response is “wow”) is amplified in scene after scene as it’s his job to carry in the coats of all the major stars stopping by Budder’s home to congratulate her on opening night.
McNally’s script does border on farce with casts like Hamilton, Matilda and Rock of Ages stopping by to load down Gus with their coats. Much of the dialog makes references to Broadway insider information and even tongue-in-cheek references to Nathan Lane and F. Murray Abraham were hilariously spoken by those very same actors in their original roles.
When Groteleuschen does arrive on the scene, he is overcome with the prospect of his being hailed a genius by the critics and having a place in the pantheon of great American playwrights assured. However, as the reviews start to come in, he spirals out of control, turning towards the heavens to ask for divine assistance in what is surely the heart of McNally’s biting satire.
There are a lot of laughs, but sometimes the humor does fall a bit flat, perhaps because it feels forced. Obviously, no show could have so many things wrong with it and make it to the Great White Way – or could it? McNally’s script makes one thing for sure. Whether a hit or a flop, producing a Broadway show with its attendant, skyrocketing costs and the personal capital actors, directors and producers put into it, is very much a laughable matter.
Now that we’ve seen The Golden Egg’s fictional opening night at New Jersey’s George Street Playhouse, perhaps we can hold on just a bit longer as the very real and serious business of theatre prepares to reopen in New York.
It’s Only a Play (1 hour, 57 minutes) continues on its livestream platform now through July 4. Written by Terrence McNally, tickets are $33 each. Directed by Kevin Cahoon, it was filmed on stage at the New Brunswick Theater for the Performing Arts and features cinematography and editing by Michael Boylan, scenic design by David L. Arsenault, costume design by Alejo Vietti and lighting design by Alan C. Edwards. Sound design, music and sound editing is by Ryan Rumery. Hair and wig design is by Charles G. LaPointe, while makeup is by Dorothy Petersen.
It’s Only a Play is sponsored by Sharon Karmazin & The Karma Foundation. The artistic director of the George Street Playhouse is David Saint and the managing director is Kelly Ryman.