The Streaming Experience: George Street Playhouse’s It’s Only a Play
Fasten your seat belts, online theatre junkies, it’s gonna be a wild and rocky night at the horse races,… or something like that. She tends to almost get it right; the line, most of the time, hitting it just shy of on the nose. And the same could be said of this play. That’s a joke. Sort of. One of the many delivered with aplomb by the feisty crew assembled for Tony Award winner Terrence McNally’s hit comedy, It’s Only a Play, streaming for the world to see from June 15 – July 4. Professionally filmed onstage at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, this opening night insider-to-the-outsider kinda play, one that I saw back in 2014 with an A list all-star cast, isn’t a solidly perfect farce like Noises Off or The Play That Goes Wrong, but it does find frisky frivolity in the manic celeb-packed debauchery of this theatrical self obsessed mob. Brought to life by George Street Playhouse with a slickness that is most appreciated, this ode to self-possession and adoration steeped inside the twisted theatre world does it’s shindig best to create a wry hilarity for each bit of show business types that are thrown out at us and at each other with a clever ease. It’s basically sharp, stylish, witty, and pretty darn satisfying, even when it stumbles under its own weight and heartfelt sincerity.
Directed sharply by a strongly focused Kevin Cahoon (George Street’s The Nerd), with pitch perfect cinematography and editing by Michael Boylan (comedy is hard, especially on stream, but he makes it look seamless), the streamed production does the almost impossible by crafting a well orchestrated alignment of theatre types and comedy all inside the vacuum of an empty auditorium. To deliver a farce under such circumstances is a feat worth mentioning, and can not be denied, but here at George Street they have created some more interesting and funny characters and moments than others for a night of preposterous and heartfelt narrative. Just give the lead a “comfortable chair and a phone for the exposition“, while doing just that. It is the engine that this farce is fueled by, and it’s some pretty good high octane gas in that tank.
With a starry-eyed coat check boy, played strongly by the adorable Doug Harris (Playwrights Realm’s The Rape of the Sabine Women…), basically (almost) stealing the show (much like Micah Stock did on Broadway), the opening night party play storms forward, barely giving the boy a chance to catch his breath as he, and the others, deliver one joke and witty aside after the other, all as they wait eagerly for the reviews of the play to come in. The crew are all, in one manner or another, invested in the success (or failure) of this theatrical thing, and it leads them round and around that beautifully coordinated bedroom, courtesy of the strong work of Scenic Designer David L. Arsenault (Theatre Row’s A Letter to Harvey Milk), Costume Designer Alejo Vietti (Broadway/RTC’s Holiday Inn), and Lighting Designer Alan C. Edwards (Vineyard’s Harry Clarke), with Sound Design, Music and Sound Editing by Ryan Rumery (Broadway’s Be More Chill), as the wild opening party rages on downstairs. We hear the opening party celebration behind those closed doors, but what we are invited in to is something much more intimate and raw. The background mischief is genuinely worthy of the center stage it occupies. They all gather in that high end bedroom to support and rage against the machine, pushing their agendas and balancing their egos on a pretty flimsy schick, all the while seeming to enjoy doing “a lot of self destructive things,..but I draw the line at television“.
It’s Only a Play does find the formula to bring to life an assortment of unforgettable characters packed into unbelievably fun moments; from the overly dramatic messy leading lady snorting cocaine on the side table to the wonderkid over-the-top British director aching for an arrogant flop so he can feel those sort of feelings. Another slice of success, I guess, for him specifically, is an unimaginable bore, equal to the need for others to get that rave of external validation. It’s the other drug that lives in the air in that particular room on that particular night. The play that they are all celebrating, entitled The Golden Egg, just opened on Broadway, and everyone has their opinion of it. The title is an overly obvious joke just waiting to be made, in the same way that these characters are so desperately waiting for those reviews. Those quotes are just aching to be made, it becomes clear. We feel it on our lips, us critics, but I can’t say I need to use them for this one. I want to, just for the fun of the word play, but they wouldn’t quite fit this production, and it wouldn’t be fair to do so just for my pleasure.
Back in 1985, It’s Only a Play debuted as McNally (Frankie and Johnny…) himself sat struggling to unveil a hit play. No surprise there, as this wacky lightweight wonderment is filled to the brim with digs and kisses for a business that is all show, and not always kind, until it is. And when it is, it borders on the divine. Years later, with a Pulitzer, an Emmy and a whole bunch of Tony awards at his side, this ode to the stage play feels a bit cluttered with complaints, and off balanced with heartfelt speeches. They resonate, but are overly dramatic, forced forward by the desperate playwright, played by the very talented Andy Grotelueschen (Broadway’s Tootsie), whose play is at the rotten apple core of this much taster dish. When it was on Broadway, It’s Only a Play starred the legendary Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Stockard Channing, Megan Mullally, Rupert Grint, and F. Murray Abraham, who somehow, along with Lane, still manage to play their part in the insult joke compartment within this production. Micah Stock basically stole the show as the cute coat check boy, dying to sing a song that would defy gravity in this Jack O’Brien directed moderately successful staging. It was a hot ticketed item, back then, but I only wish the production was as great and hilarious as the frenzy surrounding the ticket sales.
Somehow here at George Street Playhouse, the less starry (by a bit) cast, in general, finds a more solidly singular sensation. Maybe because here the star power is dimmed a bit, while the air is filled with a bit more humanity, even in the over the top antics. Maybe this is how this play truly shines. The impeccable Julie Halston (Broadway’s Tootsie) knows it all, snapping up the spotlight from her very first entrance making it impossible to look away, even as she throws her leg around like she’s being electrocuted. “She used to be good, but so was Faye Dunaway,” says Jimmy, played cleverly and hilariously by the handsomely engaging (and not so over the top) Zach Shaffer (Broadway’s The Man Who Came to Dinner) as the television star who has returned to Broadway to cheer on, somewhat, his dear close playwright friend, Peter (Grotelueschen). They have history on Broadway, and with that history comes complications and a bond that even insults can’t harm. When the play opened in 2014 on Broadway, that coupling was Lane and Broderick, bringing that star-powered Producer pizzaz to the ring. That celebrity excitement basically over dazzled the material, using often cheap and amusing antics to nail it down, but here Jimmy and Peter are the duo that dare to engage in some truth telling, and it feels somewhat most clear thanks to their lower star powered wattage on a more authentic landscape.
The character that still struggles to connect to the same level of witty Broadway banter laced with secret poison is the ditzy delusional producer who has too much money for her own good. Mullally on Broadway tried her darndest to bring humor to the part, while here, Christine Toy Johnson (Broadway/Stroman’s The Music Man) never really hits any grove worth remembering, being almost too ditzy and sweet for her own good. She isn’t bad, I must add, but she’s no Greg Cuellar (New Light’s I Wanna Fuck Like R&J) who shines sharply throughout as the impossible Brit director with his very unique blend of pomp and circumstance. He uncovers a way through the muck that simply failed Grint in the Broadway production, giving a ridiculously fun portrayal that works. Cuellar flails around, almost annoyingly, but in a cunning manner that elevates the part, especially during his little historical puppet show that entertains and connects us all to his inner bad boy.
It’s a joy, even when the whole sags under some tender swipes. Luckily for us, all of the cast seem to ingeniously genuflect at the high priest altar of self-involvement with consistently smart pleasure. Most make it work for them. Others struggle, but It’s Only a Play, and even when the words sometimes fail the crew, here and there, the play and the cast never fall entirely into a Golden Egg‘s mess. Triney Sandoval (Broadway’s Bernhardt/Hamlet) as the acidic desperate theatre critic (and secret playwright, no surprise there) wisely questions Peter with a nod, asking him what lengths he would go for a good review. “Put a bag over your head and I’d fuck you for one,” he says, with all honesty. Luckily it doesn’t have to come to that for either of them or this production. It’s Just a Play finds its light in the streamed darkness, and has fun in it. For the most part. So “Fuck me, Jean Paul Sartre,” enjoy this one, as comedy is hard, especially streamed, but George Street gets it right. The review might not be the rave they were all waiting and hoping for, but it certainly isn’t a rotten egg either. It’s pretty darn close to golden, if you ask me.
George Street Playhouse‘s It’s Only a Play Streaming June 15 – July 4.
by Terrence McNally. Directed by Kevin Cahoon. Tickets are available for $33 per household at GeorgeStreetPlayhouse.org. Virtual Household Tickets will be available to purchase until 8 PM EST on Saturday, July 3, 2021.