It’s Only a Play. Written by Terrence McNally. Directed by Arturo Catricala. New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA.
Terrence McNally’s newly revised satire of the theatre is a delightful respite from the harsh realities that have been bombarding us recently. With a great ensemble cast of comic veterans, McNally’s hit both skewers and embraces his easily recognizable characters; the bitchy actor, the pompous critic, the doe-eyed newcomer, the drug-addled over-the-hill actress, the nervous playwright and the ditsy first-time producer. Updated with references to contemporary theatre stars and shows, It’s Only a Play has enough smart laughs to keep audiences engaged from start to finish.
The setup is fairly simple – the characters converging in the bedroom of producer Julia Budder (Melissa Keith) as they anxiously await opening night reviews of playwright Peter Austin’s (Chris Morrell) The Golden Egg. As the party rages on downstairs, we meet the over-the-top cast who over the course of the evening will alternatively support, loathe, and backstab each other. The production depends heavily on the delivery of the material and this cast is up to the task. There’s plenty of famous Broadway name dropping and a funny insider joke about local actor Will Giammona, who just happened to be in attendance opening night.
P.A. Cooley is perfectly cast as James Wicker, the egotistical TV star who turned down the lead role in his best friend’s play. Puffed up, but highly insecure, he finds his series has been cancelled right when he’s having his built-in swimming pool moved. Cooley is a master at delivering a bitchy barb and talking out of both sides of his face. Hating every aspect of his friend’s play, Cooley plays the supportive role till all hell breaks out in the second act.
There’s Virginia Noyes (Michaela Greeley); Oscar winning movie star turned tabloid fodder, who’s looking for redemption in the theatre. With her clutch full of illegal substances, Noyes’ performance includes her ankle monitor going off and botched lines. It’s a juicy role for Greeley who plays it with unblinking non-self-awareness. Likewise, rich producer Julia Budder is equally uninformed. Melissa Keith is blissfully ditzy, assuming the head of the theatre is the actual Mr. Shubert.
Kevin Singer has a tasty role as the wunderkind British director Frank Finger, who longs for a flop after so many meaningless hits. Lauded for all he does, Singer plays the character as a punkish bad boy trying to prove himself to his disdaining father.
Chris Morrell gets to play the overly sincere playwright Peter Austin. With his career on the line, you can sense his hopefulness that turns to desperation. Add in critic/wanna-be writer Ira Drew (Geoffrey Colton) and Gus (the adorable Nicholas Decker), a naïve coat checker with Broadway aspirations, and you have all bases of the theatre world covered.
Kuo Hao Lo’s set is a pastiche of bad taste showing that Budder’s wealth does not equal class. Keri Fitch provides appropriate opening night black tie and tails. Arturo Catricala allows the actors to breathe into their overblown, often ridiculous personas.
After all the build-up, the second act delivers the goods- the NY Times review. And it ain’t good. In fact, its scathing, leaving everyone involved crushed. Who doesn’t love a well-written bloodbath and McNally has written a dilly. I found myself howling at each biting criticism, knowing I could never write such a hateful diatribe, even though a show may warrant it. The NY Times review is as equally scathing as James Wicker’s comments in Act One. The heart of the play is everyone’s heartfelt belief that theatre is the raison d’etre, and in that vein, it’s a love letter to the object of McNally’s affectionate ridicule.
Performances run through April 1st, 2018 www.nctcsf.org 415.861.8972