Newport Theater Arts Center stages Broadway satire ‘It’s Just a Play’
By Eric Marchese | NB Indy Special
“It’s Only a Play” is something of a rarity for Terrence McNally. A playwright for over 20 years, he was poised to find his voice with searing, incisive works like “The Lisbon Traviata,” “Lips Together, Teeth Apart,” “Master Class,” and “Love! Value! Compassion!” and the librettos of epic musicals like “Kiss of the Spider Woman”, “Ragtime” and “The Full Monty”.
So visit the Newport Theater Arts Center until June 19 and check out this rather obscure comedy, in which McNally revised and renamed his unsuccessful 1978 play “Broadway.”
“It’s Only a Play” opened off-Broadway in 1982, was revived off-Broadway in 1985, and came to Broadway in 1986.
The show has rarely been seen in Orange County, which is a little confusing, as its subject matter is something anyone involved in theater can relate to: the trials and tribulations of directing a new piece.
In this case, the (fictional) world premiere takes place in the high-stakes realm of getting an all-new (also fictional) play, “The Golden Egg,” off the ground on Broadway. This show just had its opening night and its producer, Julia Budder (Yvonne Robertson), is throwing a big party at her luxurious Manhattan townhouse.
Most of the attendees are stage and screen celebrities, but for Julia and the core group tied to their new show, the issue is how the show will be received by the press, including first night critics. can do anything but make or break any new production.
Julia’s guests include playwright Peter Austin (Austin James Duffis); director Frank Finger (Alex Piper); and its star, Virginia Noyes (Della Lisi Kerr), each in a state of creative stasis and desperate for success.
James Wicker (Bill Peters) is basically rooting for the show to fall on his face. After being catapulted to stardom in Peter’s first big hit play, the two became best friends. James was lured to Hollywood and offered a television series. Peter wrote “The Golden Egg” with him in mind for the lead role. James rejected him, and the last thing he wants is to see him score a hit.
That’s basically it for the “It’s Just a Game” storyline as these five characters come and go guessing how the press will react to their new show.
Added to this are three characters who have no stake in the outcome: theater critic Ira Drew (Gary Douglas), so vicious he’s been banned from review by the drama league; Gus P. Head (Lee Samuel Tanng), a young actor new to New York looking for a break; and Emma Bovary (Carla Naragon), a seasoned New York cabbie on call for the evening to drive Julia’s guests home.
Whether McNally based the story or his characters on personal experiences or show business people in his orbit, or whether he simply used real life scenarios as a starting point and then let his imagination do the rest, everything the world guesses it.
What is clear is that the playwright himself was in the doldrums when he made considerable revisions to his previous play. His screenplay is so slightly shallow and frothy that it could almost have been written by any of his contemporaries.
“It’s Only a Play” is still an enjoyable evening of theater, with plenty of laughs, many rooted in the script itself – but that doesn’t compare to the incredible creative brilliance that McNally was about. to show the world.
Show biz people and their outsized egos are easy to ridicule, which is why so many plays (usually comedies) give us a behind-the-scenes look. Later in his career, McNally would have created something more nuanced, but here five (and eventually six) of McNally’s characters are simply superficial, self-absorbed egomaniacs flattering their more famous peers, always eager to rub elbows with each other. and drop their names.
Director Bob Fetes and his stellar cast more than make up for what the script doesn’t provide, helping to cloud the material’s more or less thin premise by filling in characters who are essentially tropes of theater personalities (the wealthy but naive producer, playwright insecure, exuberant star, neurotic director, etc.).
The production is visually satisfying, thanks to the creativity and industry of NTAC’s design team. ‘Luxury’ is the hallmark of Julia’s master bedroom, beautifully designed, fitted and furnished by Fetes and James Huffman. Tom Phillips and Larry Watts provide the cast with their elegant opening night attire, complete with expert lighting and sound scheme from Josh Serrano.
Overall, Wicker, Virginia, and Ira are walking tropes. Peters’ snarky, caustic Wicker is a bitchy old queen capable of becoming a tizzy, D-list star who has no right to be so full of himself.
Kerr’s Virginia is essentially an alcoholic, drug-addicted, profanity-spitting Hollywood star who hopes to reclaim Broadway, while Douglas’ Ira is unnecessarily mean and selfish when doing his job and, when in society, obnoxious.
As written, Frank is an avant-garde director determined to shake up American theater, horrified by his condition. Piper amplifies Frank’s spectacular lack of confidence with hilariously hysterical outbursts that would make Gene Wilder proud.
Duffis’ playwright Austin is like a younger version of Frank, except he’s still working in the dark and desperate for success – perhaps a reflection of McNally himself at this point in his career.
Julia de Robertson spouts hilarious metaphors. Boiling with enthusiasm for live theater, she is pleasantly free from the negativity that surrounds her – until late in the evening, when her company’s constant gossip rubs off on her. (We won’t spoil one of the show’s funniest lines, in which a character asks Julia if she wants a hit.)
Only Gus and Emma are untainted by the scene’s seemingly toxic appeal. Tanng’s Gus is a star-struck rookie unable to let anyone rain down on his adoration for show biz, while Emma de Naragon, having seen every personality aberration possible, is easy-going without appearing jaded.
Ironically, the cliched happy ending of “It’s Only a Game” seems nailed to it; the title of the play indicates that the lesson of the events depicted is “don’t take this job too seriously”, something these characters seem unable to do.
Newport Theater Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach. Until June 19. Duration (including intermission): 2h30. Tickets: $20. Ticket Purchase/Information: (949) 631-0288, www.ntaconline.com.