The fourth and final show in the George Street Playhouse’s 2021 online series, “It’s Only a Play,” was filmed on a stage at the George Street Playhouse’s home — the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center — and feels very much like a production you might see there. It is also, I believe, the best in the series, and perfectly timed: It is, among other things, a love letter to the theater, and a reminder of what has been lost, culturally, during the time of the pandemic.
What it is most of all, though, is just a very funny comedy.
Written by the late Terrence McNally and originally produced off-off-Broadway in 1982 and then revived on Broadway in 2014 (with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick co-starring), “It’s Only a Play” takes place in the spacious, handsome townhouse of well-meaning but somewhat dim Broadway producer Julia Budder (Christine Toy Johnson), who is opening a new play, “The Golden Egg.”
James Wicker (Zach Shaffer), a famous actor who has flown in from Los Angeles for the event, is waiting upstairs to see her as the opening night party takes place downstairs. Wandering in at various times are the play’s pretentious writer Peter Austin (Andy Grotelueschen), its acclaimed, volatile director Frank Finger (Greg Cuellar), its gleefully drug-taking leading lady Virginia Noyes (Julie Halston), obnoxious critic Ira Drew (Triney Sandoval) and naive hired help Gus P. Head (Doug Harris), who is also an aspiring actor.
The jaded, two-faced James is the central character, passing the time, as he waits, by making catty remarks about countless people in the entertainment industry. He also hides the fact that he hates the play, which his old friend Peter wrote for him to star in, but which he turned down, claiming to be too busy with his successful sitcom.
The play’s drama lies in the characters waiting for the reviews, and the make-or-break New York Times response in particular. The suspense has got them all on edge. Is “The Golden Egg” really as bad as James think it is? Will wunderkind Frank finally stumble? Will Julia, producing her first Broadway play after merely providing financial backing for others, and Peter, making it to Broadway for the first time as a writer, get the redemption they’re seeking?
And will Virginia, who gives Julia’s barking dog Valium just to get it to shut up, manage to stay out of trouble for five minutes?
Along the way, they all trade quips and barbs, with the occasional soul-searching soliloquy thrown in. Director Kevin Cahoon throws in nice little touches like the music of “There’s No Business Like Show Businesses” (bookending the film), slowed down so much you feel like you’re hearing it for the first time; a virtual intermission; and a very showbizzy font in the credits, with every letter “lit up,” as if it were part of a marquee.
Though the first incarnation of the play is almost 40 years old, it has been updated, with references to “Hamilton” and the Kardashians, among other things. Old-school references (to Tommy Tune, Harvey Fierstein, Faye Dunaway, F. Murray Abraham and so on) and the updated ones exist side-by-side; this is probably the only play ever to include jokes about both Rita Moreno and Chris Christie.
The jokes can be acidic, but they don’t really come off as mean-spirited, because the characters are just chatting, not really lashing out. Here is a sample of the dialogue, from when Virginia is encouraging James to come to the party downstairs.
Virginia: If Liza sings, you’re gonna miss it.
James: You mean there’s a chance that she won’t?
Virginia: That’s unkind.
James: I’ve been on a sitcom so long I think I have to make a joke, even when I don’t. She’s one of my best friends.
Virginia: She’s a c—. And I mean that in the best possible sense of the word.
But there is some poetry in the play, too, to balance the crudeness. Julia talks about the moment before every play when she looks out over the audience and wonders, “Where do all these people come from?” And Frank rhapsodizes about the theater as “a place to talk to one another” via the stage.
Yes, McNally paints Frank as a fool in many ways. All these characters are, in fact, very flawed human beings. But beneath all the entertaining nonsense of “It’s Only a Play,” their love of the theater is beautiful and profound. Watch this film and you’ll long to be back at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, or somewhere like it, as soon as possible.
“It’s Only a Play” can be streamed at georgestreetplayhouse.org through July 4.
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