This George Street Playhouse production of Terrence McNally’s 35-year-old bitchy, witty backstage comedy about the opening night party of a Broadway flop comes almost seven years after its star-studded debut on Broadway itself. In my review of the production back then, I wrote that the first half hour was the funniest I’d seen all season, and that the second act was among the dullest.
This hasn’t changed. But much else has. Ben Brantley is no longer the Times theater critic. Terrence McNally is no longer alive. Also: There’s no Broadway.
It thus seems a strange time for a production of “It’s Only A Play,” which was filmed onstage at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center and will be streamed online through July 4th. That it’s a digital presentation just amps up the incongruity, especially when a character in the play marvels about the beauty of live theater: “The thing about theatre is this: it’s actually happening at the very moment it is,” she says on stage in the recording.
McNally, who died last year at the age of 81, wrote 36 plays, the books for 10 musicals, and the librettos for four operas, and I think I would have preferred to see just about any one of the others revived over “It’s Only a Play.”
My guess is that director Kevin Cahoon et al intended this revival to be both a loving exercise in nostalgia and a hopeful preview of Broadway’s return. (That surely explains the sappy rendition of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” at the beginning and end of the video.) Clearly, I don’t see it the same way. Still, to my surprise, I found at least two ways that their production felt an improvement over the 2014 Broadway version.
“It’s Only A Play” takes place in the townhouse of the producer of “The Golden Egg” on the night of its Broadway opening – in the first act, the characters wait for the reviews; in the second act, they react to them. On Broadway, six of the seven characters were portrayed by celebrated performers. In the George Street production, there is really only one famous name – Julie Halston — and she’s fabulous as Virginia Noyes, a washed-up, coked-up Hollywood movie star who took the part in the play to revive her career, and feels guilty that her ankle bracelet went off during her performance. The rest of the cast are lesser-known, hard-working actors. Zach Shaffer, who’s had a respectable career including on Broadway but is not as well-known as Nathan Lane, now portrays James Wicker, the playwright’s best friend who gave up Broadway to star in a TV series. Similarly, Christine Toy Johnson takes on the role that Megan Mullally had on Broadway of the producer Julia Budder, and Andy Grotelueschen, Tony nominee for his role as Santino Fontana’s put-upon roommate in Tootsie, is the playwright Peter Austin, which Matthew Broderick played on Broadway. The casting — combined with a top ticket price of $33, not $172 — makes the show feel less chummy and insider. And this in turn somehow makes more palatable the pot-shots the play takes at generic theater people (the titled bad-boy British director; the untalented, corrupt, envious critic; the naïve, filthy rich female producer) if not the mean-spirited insults towards such named celebrities as Faye Dunaway, Rita Moreno, and Tommy Tune.
On Broadway seven years ago, the creative team tried to update “It’s Only a Play” from the original 1985 Off-Broadway script, adding references to selfies, sexting and chat rooms, and replacing no longer familiar celebrity names in its shtick of constant name-dropping (“Al Pacino! Can you believe it?” Gus, the star-struck newcomer, exclaims on the phone to his mentor. “This place is crawling with famous people. Donald Trump looked right at me and asked me for a glass of Dom Perignon. I told him I was taking coats. My first night in New York and I’m High-Fiving Denzel Washington. I’m pretty sure I saw Rosie O’Donnell talking to the Pope “)
From an anthropological point of view, if nothing else, it’s interesting to see what the new production itself chooses to update, and what it leaves as anachronism.
Gus (portrayed by Doug Harris) still gushes over everybody in that opening monologue, except Donald Trump. Instead of carrying in Shia LaBeouf’s coat, he brings in the coats of the entire cast of “Hamilton.” The playwright Peter Austin (Grotelueschen) still calls Ben Brantley a “pretentious, diva-worshipping, British-ass-kissing twat.” Instead of complaining that he couldn’t see the stage because “they put me behind Mayor de Blasio” (a reference to the New York City mayor’s height), Ira Drew, the loathsome critic (Triney Sandoval) complains about Chris Christie (a reference to the former governor of New Jersey’s girth.) Frank, the bad-boy British director (Greg Cuellar) no longer says “I won’t work with animals, children or Frank Langella.” Langella has been replaced by F. Murray Abraham – which seems bizarre (Langella is still a familiar name) unless you know that F. Murray Abraham portrayed the critic in the Broadway production of “It’s Only a Play.” A new inside joke!
It’s Only A Play
George Street Playhouse
Through July 4
Running time: two hours
Written by Terrence McNally
Directed by Kevin Cahoon
Cast: Greg Cuellar as Sir Frank Finger, Andy Grotelueschen as playwright Peter Austin, Julie Halston as leading lady Virginia Noyes, Doug Harris as star-struck neophyte Gus P. Head, Christine Toy Johnson as naive rich producer Julia Budder, Triney Sandoval as corrupt critic Ira Drew, Zach Shaffer as leading man James Wicker