By Ruth Ross
If you’ve been reading my reviews for the past 25 years, you know I’m a sucker for plays about the theater—known as the academic-sounding genre, meta plays—and farce. Put the two together, and you’ve got pure gold. (Above: Mark Junek, Kristine Nielsen, Doug Harris, Greg Cuellar, Lindsay Nicole Chambers and Patrick Richwood)
Well, who better to write a meta farce than Terrence McNally, the prolific playwright who succumbed in March 2020 to COVID after a diverse six-decade career that saw his plays and musicals performed all over the world, earning him the honorific of “the bard of American theater”?
While his lengthy career has included a plethora of hits—five of which won Tony Awards—there were some clunkers along the way, providing great material for It’s Only a Play, a farcical treatment of theatrical failure, now romping, literally, onstage at the George Street Playhouse in the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center through December 19.
Originally produced by GSP in the spring of 2021 as part of the company’s Virtual Season, this production now marks George Street Playhouse’s return to the Elizabeth Ross Johnson Theatre in the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center.
A Broadway opening night party for new play in the producer’s swanky Manhattan townhouse brings together a motley crew of characters associated with the play and the playwright as they nervously await the late-night reviews printed in the newspapers. Their back-biting snark and witty pronouncements give us a rarely seen behind-the-scenes view of a theatrical production providing much merriment over the characters’ over-the-top pomposity and narcissism!
Under the steady, self-critical co-direction of Kevin Calhoon and Colin Hanlon, the seven talented actors swan around the stage, insult each other, and raise general mayhem.
director Frank Finger hates theater people, even as he’s one of them; he has a fine moment re-enacting a childhood scene between him and his father. (Left: Richwood, Cuellar, Nielsen)
One of the most hilarious performances is turned in by Lindsay Nicole Chambers as wealthy first-time producer socialite Julia Budder, who is prone to misquoting famous quotes and wants theater to be “elegant,” with no four-letter words. Every time she opens her mouth Chambers gets an uproarious laugh from the audience. Matching her for cluelessness is Doug Harris as theater wannabe Gus P. Head, newly arrived in NYC and working as the coat-taker, drink-bringer for Budder’s party. A real naïf, Harris’ Gus lights up the stage in his ineptitude and worshipful, wide-eyed response to these actors he thinks are Broadway greats; he provides a neat counterpoint to the overly dramatic, self-importance of the “real” actors.
Production values of It’s Only a Play are superb. David L. Arsenault has designed a townhouse worthy of a wealthy socialite; Alejo Vietti has attired the actors in costumes appropriate to their characters’ personalities; for example, the top hat, cape and tails worn by Peter Austin are a testament to his vision of himself as a successful playwright! Ryan Rumery’s sound design is evident from the moment we enter the theater to the melodies of theater-related songs, setting the acoustic stage for what will happen once the curtain rises.
My only complaint has to do with the length of McNally’s script. Clocking in at two hours plus a 15-minute intermission, the play feels overwritten, as though the playwright could not let go of a good thing. Some of the shtick was repetitive, and I found myself looking at my watch.
Terrence McNally knew from which he wrote. In fact, in Philadelphia tryouts, the early version of It’s Only a Play, called Broadway, Broadway, received negative reviews, its Broadway opening was cancelled, and McNally realized that having a show close is not the worst thing that could happen!
It’s Only a Play will be performed at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, through December 19. For information and tickets, visit www.georgestreetplayhouse.org online.