It’s Only a Play is raucous, ribald and risqué at Hillbarn

The amazing cast of It’s Only a Play. (left to right) Gary Schoenfeld (Frank Finger), April Green (Julia Budder), Jesse Caldwell* (Ira Drew), Chris Reber*(James Wicker), Ryan Cordero (Peter Austin), Luisa Sermol*(Virginia Noyse). (Back) Josiah Frampton as (Gus)
Photo Credit: Mark Kitaoka.

IT’S ONLY A PLAY: Comedy by Terrence McNally. Directed by Steve Muterspaugh. Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 EastHillsdale Blvd., Foster City, CA. 650-349-6411 or October 10–27, 2019.

It’s Only a Play is raucous, ribald and risqué at Hillbarn. Rating: ★★☆☆☆

In 1985 after 20 years of non-success in the theater Terrence  McNally wrote It’s Only a Play that skewered the theatrical world. It had a somewhat successful run on Broadway with an all-star cast. That cast included, amongst others, Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Stockard Channing and F. Murray Abraham. Hillbarn’s artistic director Dan Demers writes in the program: “ On the coattails of last year’s uproariously successful production of Noises Off, I set the goal to try for a repeat of that amount of shared laughter, this time focused on the high drama (and low comedy) of opening night of a new Broadway show.”

That suggests that a farce is to unfold but visually there is a problem since there are only two rather than the obligatory four doors needed for farce on the magnificent set designed by Kuo-Hao Lo. Further the original play is significantly dated and updating to the present is anachronistic and unfunny. In the past persons involved in a play production gathered at late opening night parties awaiting the written newspaper reviews. Hillbarn has updated the time to “now” and the ubiquitous cell phone text messages replace the newspaper and the reading out loud of those texts does not give the weight of  a written review. For the record, the director has included video clips with one reviewer being the incomparable Heather Orth as an announcer. It is a nice touch.

 The play begins on opening night for the play “The Golden Egg” and the title gives away the fact that the play will lay an egg. The place is the fashionable multiplex apartment bedroom of the producer Julia Budder (April Green). A party filled with celebrities is ongoing on at a lower level and often a famous name will be dropped as “wanna” be actor coat-check boy Gus (Josiah Frampton) makes entrances stacked with wraps and coats of the party goers. Peter (Ryan C. Cordero) is the ever hopeful playwright and James (Chris Reber) his best friend has turned down the lead in the play and is a successful TV actor. The leading lady in the play is Virginia (Luisa Sermol) an aging star addicted to drugs. Then there is the egotistical British director Frank (Gary Schoenfeld) and Ira (Jesse Caldwell) a savage theatre critic/clandestine playwright. An important off stage character is NY Times theatre critic Ben Brantley whose unfavorable review sets off a chain of reactions creating mayhem on stage.

In act two the actions becomes even more hectic with a semi-prayer meeting that includes the audience! Inner motivations are revealed especially Ira’s playwriting ambition having written 35 plays. Surely one will be a success. The resolution, not to be revealed here involves Alexander Pope’s “Hope springs eternal” since after all “It’s Only a Play.”

Other than being an outdated play the acting involves a great deal of shouting masquerading as acting and many of the interactions between characters is poorly timed. Director Muterspaugh may have intended the actors to play histrionically but in doing so it is difficult to single out individuals although the cast includes most who have gained accolades in many other productions. The play runs one hour for act one and 45 minutes for act two with a 15 minute intermission. It is a long evening that misses the mark that Artistic Director Dan Demer’s hoped for.

CAST: Peter, Ryan Cordero; Ira, Jesse Caldwell; Gus, Josiah Frampton; Julia, April Green; James, Chris Reber; Frank, Gary Schoenfeld; Virginia, Luisa Sermol.

CREATIVE STAFF: Director, Steve Muterspaugh; Assistant Director, Katherine Hamilton; Costume, Hair & Makeup, Valerie Bradshaw; Lighting Designer, Amber G. Watts; Properties Designer, Dan Demers; Scenic Designer, Kuo-Hao Lo; Sound Designer, James Goode; Stage Manager, Megan Smith; Scenic Builder & Painter, Paulino Deleal.

Kedar K. Adour, MD

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