“It’s Only a Play,” the Terrence McNally comedy that George Street Playhouse is currently presenting at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, has not just one but two directors.
Kevin Cahoon directed George Street’s film version of the play that ran online earlier this year. He wanted to direct George Street’s stage version, which features three of the same actors and four different ones, as well. But since he is performing in the upcoming television series “Monarch,” starring Susan Sarandon as a country music star, his time was limited.
George Street artistic director David Saint suggested bringing in Colin Hanlon as the co-director, and both men, who are good friends, agreed to the arrangement. Hanlon had worked on four previous George Street productions, most recently acting in “The Nerd” (2018), which Cahoon directed.
Cahoon “attended” some “It’s Only a Play” stage rehearsals via Zoom from Atlanta, where he was shooting “Monarch.” But he also was able to make it to some rehearsals in person.
“There’s a freedom to the theater,” said Cahoon. “When we were filming, I was thinking … say there’s a conversation between three characters. I was like, ‘Well, they have to be close together because we have one shot to capture it in.’ But when we were rehearsing for this, I was like, ‘They don’t have to be sitting so close to each other. They can spread out all over the stage, because we don’t have to worry about getting it in one camera shot.’ It’s a liberation, going back to the theater and doing it again.”
Hanlon said he didn’t specifically ask the new actors not to watch the video. But he asked them if they did, and they said they hadn’t. That’s good, in a way, because the new actors, he said, “are able to come up with their own moments and their own connections to each other. You can’t re-create that from watching a video.”
The new actors, said Hanlon, “are just completely different people, and they’re bringing a completely different thing to it, which, to me, is really exciting. If I teach a television/film class and I give my students the same scene, what someone brings to it is going to be completely different from what someone else brings to it. There’s really no right or wrong or better or worse. It’s just a completely different thing and it’s kind of incredible to watch.
“It’s really sort of a testament to the writing. If the writing is solid, an actor could bring in a different interpretation of it, slightly in their own personality, and the writing still works.”
Hanlon gives, as an example of that, the “It’s Only a Play” role of Virginia Noyes, a famous though now over-the-hill actress. She was played by Julie Halston in the George Street film, and now by Kristine Nielsen onstage.
“Those two women, just personality-wise and who they are as human beings, is completely different,” he said. “Their comic timing is night and day. But they both really work (in the part).”
“It’s Only a Play” — about the farcical goings-on at the opening night party of a new Broadway drama — takes place entirely in one room. The online production, which debuted in June, was shot on the same NBPAC stage.
“We rehearsed in New York City, like you would a play,” said Cahoon of the online production. “I was thinking the entire time that we were doing it about shots, because we knew that we didn’t want to set up a camera and just shoot it. We wanted to have the ability to do closeups and jump shots. Its only missing element was the audience, which was challenging, because if you’re doing a Terrence McNally comedy, the audience is really another cast member.
“We were all sort of learning on our feet a new art form that developed over the pandemic, of virtual theater. What is virtual theater? How do you make it accessible? How do you keep it alive and interesting for the length of a play, with actors on one set. With TV or film, you can go to other locations. You have other actors. There’s only seven characters in this.”
As entertaining as “It’s Only a Play” was on film, it packs an extra punch when presented as it was originally intended to be presented: On a stage.
“To me,” said Hanlon, “It’s the perfect time to do this play. We’re coming out of COVID and the theater just hasn’t really existed almost, at all, for two years.”
In “It’s Only a Play,” he said, the characters “are kind of complaining about theater. But at the end, they’re like, ‘We can’t really live without it.’ ”
The play, said Cahoon, “is about theater people, and loving something so much you can’t do anything else with your life. With all of the heartbreaks and all of the caveats and all of the twists and turns of the roller coaster ride of a life in the arts, it’s the thing you love most.”
Cahoon noted that the significant others of the seven characters in the play are not shown, and only one, who is spending the night in the hospital, is mentioned.
“It’s really just this play of seven misfits in a room on the most important night of their life,” he said. “The title is ‘It’s Only a Play,’ but it becomes so much more than just a play for every character. They all have a major reckoning, a major turn that shifts the rest of their lives over this two-hour process.”
Though the play is primarily a comedy, he said, “it’s so touching and so sweet. It’s just a love letter to the theater and all the crazy people who create it.”
George Street Playhouse’s “It’s Only a Play” will run at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center through Dec. 19. Visit georgestreetplayhouse.org.
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