Reviewed by George Basler
Near the end of It’s Only a Play a character cracks the witticism that “God punishes people who do plays on Broadway.”
The one-liner pretty much sums up the theme of Terrence McNally’s play that is either a love letter or a poison pen note to the Broadway theater.
The play, which opened Friday (Sept. 24) and will run through Sunday (Sept. 26) at the newly rechristened Cider Mill Stage in Endicott, has an uneven tone, to say the least. One minute comic zingers are flying hot and heavy. The next minute a character engages in a pretentious paean to the theater that falls like a lead balloon on the action.
A skilled, seven-member cast gamely and often successfully squeeze laughs from McNally’s work. And, no question, there are plenty of laughs. But there are dead spots as well — something the cast can’t disguise.
McNally was a highly honored American playwright whose work found success in both avant-garde and commercial theater. It’s Only a Play, though, isn’t one of his most praised efforts. The play ran successfully on Broadway due in large part to the star power of its leads, Nathan Lane, and Matthew Broderick.
The play’s action 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 reviews; in the second act, they react to them. Spoiler alert: They’re disastrously bad.
The characters are a laundry list of theatrical stereotypes. There’s a once promising actor now starring in a soon-to be-canceled television sitcom; a drug-addled Hollywood actress trying to make a comeback on Broadway; an acid-tongued theater critic; an eccentric wunderkind British director; a fledging overeager actor, marking time as coat checker; a scatter-brained, but rich, producer, and the poor playwright whose work is about to get the shaft.
It’s Only a Play is filled with barbs aimed at Broadway theater and its performers. A main problem is that many are inside jokes. While they may draw howls, or at least snickers, from Broadway insiders, audience members not in on all the jokes could be left scratching their heads.
The main flaw, though, is the play’s confused pitch. Has McNally written a frothy send-up of Broadway, or a bitter satire of commercial theater? Is he trying to make serious points, or just having fun? Some of his barbs seem incredibly mean spirited.
Put it another way: The play is funny in spots, but limps along the way.
One thing is certain, however: The audience on opening night appeared to be having a seriously good time. Kate Murray’s direction kept the action moving at a brisk pace, and the actors were spot-on in their timing.
Shannon DeAngelo was hilarious as the washed-up movie star. It was a great comic performance, and she stole every one of her scenes.
Jan DeAngelo also was quite funny as the egotistical, but insecure, television star. He had some of the funnier barbs in the show and played them in a humorously snide manner that fit the character.
As the eccentric British director, Ian Harrison Cook was all frenetic energy. As written, the character is over the top, and Cook played him that way. While it’s sometimes a bit much, his performance is overall a well-done parody. A second act moment when he literally collapses into an armchair is especially well done.
Jessica Pullis and Chris Nickerson do creditable jobs as the giddy producer and dyspeptic critic respectively. Adam Ackerman makes the most of his small moments as the coat checker.
That leaves Joe Hoffmann who has the unenviable job of playing the woeful playwright whose play is a giant turkey. Hoffman is a fine actor. Unfortunately, he’s stuck in a role that is the weakest in play with lengthy, over-earnest speeches and few humorous lines.
Hoffman makes the best of this. To his credit, he gives a performance that is never mannered and totally believable. He deserves a lot better.
It’s Only a Play is the inaugural production of BLAST, a local theater group that is renting and managing the Cider Mill Stage. While It’s Only a Play has flaws, the production is a promising debut.
IF YOU GO: It’s Only a Play will be performed at 7:30 p.m. today and Sunday at the Cider Mill Stage, 2 Nanticoke Ave., Endicott. For ticket information, visit www.cidermillstage.com