The play's the thing in Act II's production of a McNally comedy

by Hugh Hunter
Posted 3/28/24

Among the 30-odd plays and librettos of Terrence McNally, the madcap humor of "It's Only A Play" stands out.

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

The play's the thing in Act II's production of a McNally comedy


Among the 30-odd plays and librettos of Terrence McNally, the madcap humor of "It's Only A Play" stands out. Loose in construction, it lacks a plot that goes beyond its initial setup, and character interaction is minimal. Debuting in 1982, "It's Only A Play" did not appear on Broadway until a 2014 revival. 

The cozy setting at Act II Playhouse is a more fitting venue. "It's Only A Play" is a play about a play. In McNally's farcical setup, you are at the reception party following the Broadway debut of "The Golden Egg." You hear the clinking glasses of the guests assembled behind closed doors. 

But the show's notables seclude themselves in a private chamber. Its plush furniture and restful mauve colors ought to assuage opening night jitters. (scenic design by Parris Bradley). Yet everyone is on edge. The crew surfs radio channels for reviews, peeved that the media is more interested in catastrophic world affairs. 

Under Director Kevin Glaccum, Tony Braithwaite takes on the starring role of James Wicker, a successful actor in a television sitcom. James flies to New York from Los Angeles, ostensibly to lend moral support to playwright Peter Austin. The electric turmoil of opening night tests their friendship. 

James rose to stardom via his role in Peter's hit play, "Flushes." James begged off taking the starring role in "The Golden Egg," citing his Los Angeles obligations. Privately, James thinks the script stinks and hopes it fails. The James-Peter tango is the only involved relationship in the play. 

Other characters are merely thrown together in a shared venture. Rather than drama, "It's Only A Play" is more like a stream of discrete comic events rooted in a shared, tension-ridden scenario. 

The cast to the rescue

There is just enough bawdy zip in McNally's dialogue for Glaccum's able cast to enliven the play's stillborn structure. E. Ashley Izard shines as Virginia Noyes, a former Hollywood Oscar winner who seeks a comeback on the Broadway stage. But Virginia's troubled past nips at her heel. 

Virginia must wear an ankle monitor to report to her parole officer. Her purse is a mobile drug emporium. Izard stops the show all night using voice, facial expression and bodily movement to create a hilarious and sad portrait of a lost Hollywood superstar.

You never do learn what "The Golden Egg" is about. It cannot be about Virginia, who complains she only has three lines in it. All night, Gus, the star-struck houseboy, bustles in and out to store the coats of arriving guests, often the signature garb from hit Broadway shows, (costume design, Katherine Fritz).  Name-dropping and insider theater jokes abound all night. 

One by one, the cast members entertain, as though they were in a scene-stealer competition. Young Nate Miles-McLean plays Gus, the waif houseboy who has no idea why a stranger set him up with such a good job and a place to stay. At the play's end, the production’s director Frank Finger (Nick Cardillo) enlightens him with a smacker on the lips. 

James Wicker comes closest to being the main character, an understated figure vivified by Tony Braithwaite's knack for comic timing. James' glad-handing is humorously at odds with his true feelings. Always on stage, James effectively emcees the abundant vanity of these theater folks, ironically unaware of his own. (James gets his comeuppance when he learns a critic wrote that his performance in "Flushes" lacked the "masculinity" of Harvey Fierstein's work.)

The silliness of others is more readily seen.  The malaprop mangling of familiar phrases by wealthy producer Julia Budder (Megan McDermott) is a run-on joke. (There are lots of run-on jokes). Frank is a celebrated English director who sports especially garish clothes. Cardillo comically acts out how Frank's father despised him. Frank now fervently hopes "The Golden Egg" will flop to gratify his need for failure.    

Ira Drew (Tom Teti) is a critic whose caustic remarks lead the others to scorn him as an outsider, and sometimes earn him physical beatings. His innocuous demeanor masks an opportunistic schemer who lies in wait for the theatrical failure of others so he can advance the play he wrote. 

Steven Wright is the playwright Peter, the only character who is not a fool. There is nothing funny about him. Peter lacks surface foibles; there is nothing "to laugh at." Peter is a struggling artist --- with successes and failures --- but always in earnest. The betrayal of "friend" James only deepens your sympathy for him. 

Is McNally suggesting the playwright is the only honest player in a theatrical world of ego-maniacal fools? If so, the joke is on him. Peter is drab, and only the vibrancy actors give to all those nutty people gives "It's Only A Play" the chance to hold your interest. 

Act II Playhouse is located at 56 E. Butler Ave. in Ambler Pa. "It's Only A Play" will run through April 14. Tickets available at 215-654-0200.