A strung-out leading lady. A crotchety critic. A pea-brained producer. If you’ve ever darkened a stage door, you know the types. However, few among us have likely witnessed more living, breathing specimens of this theatrical rogue’s gallery than playwright Terrence McNally. After all, the quadruple-threat Tony Award-winner has been consorting with the likes of them since the 1960s. It was then that his first play, And Things That Go Bump in the Night, opened on Broadway to withering reviews, one of which included this damnation: “It would have been better if Terrence McNally’s parents smothered him in his cradle.”
McNally, thankfully, persisted, going on to pen famed plays including Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, Lips Together, Teeth Apart, and Master Class, among many others. He also got a bit of vindication: After no doubt licking his wounds from the aforementioned critical death wish, in 1982 he repurposed the very rebuke in It’s Only a Play. Like the playwright, this play abides, having most recently and notably popped up on Broadway in 2014 in a refreshed production starring none other than Broadway mega-duo Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick.
Now, Midtown Productions treats Charleston audiences to this amiably, yet archly antic, take-no-prisoners takedown of all that befalls Broadway folks on that nail-biter known as opening night. Directed by Ryan C. Ahlert and Andre Hinds, Midtown’s lively production gamely tackles McNally’s delightful, if draggy, script (clocking in at two and a-half hours) with earnest gusto. With heaps of froth and a dash of ferocity, It’s Only a Play ushers in plenty of laughs — often as gorgeously guilty pleasures at the expense of the puffed-up, theater-curdled characters sparring, spewing, and staggering about stage.
Part Frank Capra comedy and part French farce, It’s Only a Play takes place in the outsize bedroom of the dim-witted, deep-pocketed Julia Budder (Andrea K. McGuinn), a good-natured, novice Broadway producer who butchers the language as she whips out her checkbook. On the opening night of the new play, The Golden Egg, she’s hosting a party in her Manhattan townhouse. The plot is powered by the showbiz assortment who enters and exits through her bedroom door. Together, they anxiously await that one make-or-break moment of theatrical success: the publication of the review from Ben Brantley, The New York Times chief theater critic.
While we’re anticipating that all-important judgment, we get a close-up of the slings and arrows of outrageous theater folk. There’s the surly stage-turned-television-star James Wicker, played with suitable spleen and smarm by Jon Ballard, who is quick to curl his lip at the play and players. There’s the drug-addled female star, Virginia Noyse — a spot-on train wreck courtesy of Lynda Harvey-Carter’s aptly unhinged portrayal — who is fresh from the pokey and hell bent on resuming her wayward ways.
Center stage is the hand-wringing playwright Peter Austin (a navel-gazing, appropriately gloopy Andy Livengood), who waxes dramatic while awaiting his fate. And there’s his erratic British director, Sir Frank Finger, a kleptomaniac endowed with Russell Brand-esque bravado through a suitably outlandish performance by Xan Rogers. Oh, and let’s not leave out the dreaded resident critic: the peevish, misunderstood Ira Drew, delivered by Terry Davey with equal parts whine and rancor.
Then there is the cast of characters milling about at the party offstage – everyone from Lady Gaga to Hillary Clinton. This we glean mostly from the fresh-from-the-cornfield hired coat check guy (Michael Okas), who intermittently, gushingly rushes in with their coats. The entire show is punctuated by this Who’s Who of the entertainment “it” crowd, which has been updated for the 2014 Broadway production to include those now in their 15 minutes, among them Rosie O’Donnell, Daniel Radcliffe, and James Franco, and often taking choice swipes at those names being dropped.
The performances are energetic and solid, and often downright funny, though I do wonder if some players were a bit too kind to their characters. After all, Ben Brantley was not the only one in the play capable of the venom McNally heaps on him. Of course, this capable cast isn’t helped by the playwright’s extenuation. Like a good party guest, It’s Only a Play should know when to wrap up before overstaying its welcome. Still, there’s ample to enjoy in McNally’s jovial, jabbing jaw on the ridiculously, comically high stakes of putting on a show.