Four-time Tony Award-winning writer Terrence McNally has finally perfected his love letter to American theatre: “It’s Only A Play,” now showing in the Ruth and Bucky Stein Studio Theater at Thalian Hall and directed by Justin Smith.
At rise (two of the most beautiful words in the English language), we find a stunning Manhattan bedroom decorated in the best of expensive taste. Enter Gus (Joe Basquill) in a borrowed jacket. It’s his first night in New York, and he’s already landed a gig handling jackets at the opening night party for “The Golden Egg”—the long-awaited Broadway debut for playwright Peter Austin (Sam Robison). What better way to meet people, network and get into the business, than to take their coats? He just met Al Pacino for heaven’s sake! He’s star struck but genuinely sweet and generous to everyone he meets, including James Wicker (Tony Rivenbark), the jaded aging actor who turned down a role in “The Golden Egg” because of his long-running TV series. For all of Basquill’s innocent joy, Rivenbark exemplifies the cattiness associated with a long and successful career in the tenuous world of entertainment. It is half an act for Gus’ benefit and half his armor in a world out to hurt him. With the people he cares about that facade drops and the same well-meaning concern that Basquill showers on everyone comes through, too.
Let’s face it: Acting is a brutal business and possibly most so for aging former beauties. Enter Virginia Noyes (Suellen Yates), the drug-addled former ingénue who is trying to make a comeback, complete with a house-arrest tracking anklet that goes off during performances. Yeats is luminescent in the role. The contrast of the stately carriage and elegant gown with the sporadic self-destructive inanity that tumbles from her lips creates an arresting portrait of contrasts: a smart and beautiful woman so terrified of herself that she does everything possible to sabotage her life. She is the living embodiment of a train wreck that’s hard to ignore.
Eventually, the owner of the bedroom, producer Julia Budder (Nina Repeta), materializes. That’s the cue for the real fawning to start: The money just walked in. She’s not the most brilliant person in the room (or any room, for that matter) but in spite of that hindrance, Repeta makes her appealing to these people for reasons other than her money. She flirts in a very “Anne of Green Gables” sort of way: fussing over them, teasing, cajoling, and sympathizing even when she clearly has missed the point. Thank god for her, because without her, Peter Austin would probably never have gotten this show on Broadway.
Robison’s opening monologue on the self-importance of his place in the scope of theatre history at this juncture in America comes so close to self aggrandizement—that if he weren’t sharing his soul with two of his closest friends, it would be impossible to stomach with a straight face. But he is sharing his soul—or rather McNally’s soul. We see the private, pained thoughts of a playwright who has watched New York become obsessed not with art and asking questions but rather with regurgitating Disney movies for the stage and kowtowing to the latest British invasion. Robison manages to give it enough sincerity and concern that, in spite of what he actually saying, the essence of something greater than himself is expressed.
Speaking of British invasion: Sir Frank Finger (Eric Johann) is the unquestioned British boy wonder director this year. He suffers interesting plays on his name and habits with a larger-than-life response in contrast with the usual restrained stereotype of the British gentleman. Then there is the lurking evil—the critic, Ira Drew (George Domby), a sadist of the old school. The actors and writer take turns reciting quotes from his most scathing reviews of them—all seared into their memories for all time. He revels in the pain; it is startling to watch. The tension is really only relieved by a surprise song from Basquill whose voice is much better than one would expect of the comedic setup of the show.
Anyone who has seen a show by the Cube Theatre Project has seen one of Gary Ralph Smith’s sets: stunning visual worlds performers romp through. He has really outdone himself with details this time. The smoked-art glass panel for the bathroom, the chic office-ette for the busy producer, and a bed so contemporary it must be New York, are just a few elements that comprise a truly stunning creation.
“Every bit of it fit together and it was wonderful!” my date gushed as we walked out. I have to agree. The “comedy with dramatic overtones” is exactly that: incredibly funny, peppered with self-referential jokes and theatre humor. It’s brought to life with a cast full of incredible chemistry. They move audiences from hysterical laughter to deep sympathy in a matter of moments. They are magical to watch and enjoy.
It’s Only a Play
Oct. 27-30, Nov. 3-6, 7:30 p.m. or Sun. matinees, 3 p.m.
Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St.