It’s Only a Play by Terrence McNally (Corpus Christi, Love! Valour! Compassion!, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Ragtime, The Full Monty, etc.) is a theatrical-trivia-lover’s dream. Name-dropping and potshots at the theatrical echelons—especially professional critics—make up the show, in which a new play’s “inner circle” (plus a coat-checker and critic) anxiously await their opening-night reviews.
Audience members with no more than a passing interest in live theater will not get the show as a true fanatic would. References span decades, up to and including Hamilton. However, if you can pick up on even a third of them—they’re pitching-machine fast—you will thoroughly enjoy this sledgehammering of all things stage, which is currently running at Theatre on the Square.
The characters are Breakfast Club-level stereotypes. Adam O. Crowe as James Wicker, a “dear friend” of the playwright (Wicker seems to have many “dear friends”) and a Broadway refugee who has taken up the more lucrative but less dignified work of TV, opens the show with the set-up of the story via a one-sided phone conversation. Crowe immediately lets us know that this is going to be fun—and snarky. Crowe gets to express the widest array of emotions of the characters: congenial, gossipy, defensive, jovial, devastated, and even sympathetic—all of which he does with charisma.
Dave Ruark plays Peter Austin, the playwright, as a fragile artist. Ruark’s demeanor conveys the sense that Austin often lives in his own reality, though he shows fierce love for his work. With Austin’s head in the clouds, he is a somewhat bland character.
The play’s director, Thomas Cardwell as Frank Finger, and the leading lady, Kathy Pataluch as Virginia Noyse, salt the stage. Cardwell portrays the director as a strange, somewhat flamboyant man with interesting clothing choices. Finger desperately wants to direct a flop because he claims he is sick of being a directorial golden boy, and he occasionally retreats from the action by throwing a velvet cape over his head. Cardwell is a hoot. Pataluch kicks up the bawdy as the coke-sniffing, ankle-monitor-wearing, washed-up actress Noyse. Pataluch snorts up the (quite lovely) scenery in an uncouth, even trashy way. (And I say that in the most complimentary way possible.) The other characters’ reactions to her are just as funny.
Financing this bizarre project is Julia Budder, played by Afton Shepard. Budder is an appallingly positive, wealthy blonde who fancies herself a theater-advocate. Shepard’s portrayal of the ditzy producer is like a cat licking your poison ivy rash: You just want to slap her. (Again, I say this in the most complimentary way possible.)
The two hangers on in the room are Gus, an overenthusiastic goofball of a coat-checker, played by Jacob Swain, and Ira Drew, a theater critic, played by Jeff Maess. Unfortunately, Maess’s Drew is kind of pitiful; he’s not daunting enough given the reputation and power he supposedly holds. Of course, today the role of critic is far from what it was in the ’80s, when the play was originally conceived. With the advent of the Internet in almost every home in America, everyone really is a critic. So, Drew himself and the production’s depiction of baited-breath reviews are obsolete. (Sad for me.)
Kudos to Darrin Murrell and the cast and crew for opening TOTS’s season with a winner.
Trivia: The version of It’s Only a Play that hit Broadway in 2014 starred Nathan Lane as Wicker, Matthew Broderick as Austin, Stockard Channing as Noyes, and Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley) as Finger. The play’s original Broadway premiere in 1978 was cancelled due to negative reviews.