There’s a fun song in the Kander and Ebb musical Curtains entitled “What Kind of Man” that depicts a musical’s producer, songwriters, and financial backer reading a variety of delightfully negative reviews while wondering how snide and heartless one must be to become a critic, asking themselves “Who’d make a living out of killing other people’s dreams?”. It’s an easy aspect to overlook when judging anyone’s work, especially these days when anyone can shroud themselves behind the anonymity of the internet. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the kind of individual to claim that all art is sacred and must be revered, flaws an all. Not in the least. If the faults are not diagnosed then how will they improve? Though with that said, there are those who revel in how creatively malicious they can be in their wordplay. Those pieces are usually worth a laugh or two, but one should remember what the goal of a critic should be before jumping straight into savage humor.
Rewritten for the stage more than once by the author, Terrence McNally’s It’s Only A Play follows the events upstairs of the opening night after party for Broadway’s newest play, The Golden Egg. As the celebrations continue downstairs, a collection of partygoers find themselves anxiously awaiting the critics’ reviews while working out their issues with themselves and one another in the process.
Set in the bedroom of producer Julia Budder’s (Rhonda Roe) upscale Manhattan home, the play’s set is elegantly constructed to give off the air of wealth without being gaudy or tacky. Given the size of the stage, the set is able to comfortably support the seven-person cast all at once without ever feeling cluttered, though this should also be attributed to director Frank Benge’s blocking which ensured each actor had a clear place to go without simply hovering onstage. Similarly most of the visual gags hit home with ease (a fond memory of a seemingly bottomless bag of prescription medication, narcotics, etc. comes to mind) without feeling forced.
Acting-wise the cast’s talents vary. Standing front and center were the performances of Jeff Shaevel and Adam Rowland (television actor James Wicker and playwright Peter Austin respectively). Shaevel’s nearly manic charisma, sarcasm, and duplicitous socializing work well with Rowland’s passion-driven speeches and passive-aggressive venting towards others. Furthermore, the two, who are best friends in character, definitely interact like lifelong friends in being both loving and painfully blunt with one another as the needs arise. The age variance between them did throw me off a bit given the constant references to their long history with one another; it suggests that they would be of a similar age (though I’m also terrible at guessing individuals’ ages so I may be way off in this regard). Further praise goes to Mary Southon (the new play’s leading actress Virginia Noyes) and the aforementioned Roe. Southon is easily one of the funniest presences onstage, active one moment and subdued the next, while also being the most tragically sympathetic individual as she battles against age, insults, and anonymity. As for Roe, she had her fair share of comical deliveries and good moments, but sometimes faltered on a line or two which never broke the scene but were noticeable.
I was enthusiastic about the performances of Nicholas Mani (waiter/usher/coat checker Gus P. Head) and Gene Storie (infamous theatre critic Ira Drew), both of whom felt subdued in comparison to the rest of the cast. Mani certainly maintained a sense of optimistic energy throughout the show as the outsider, a role which is directly stated upon in a somewhat meta moment within the play, but never really broke through his initial nervous, boyish persona from the first scene. Plus, his tuxedo t-shirt was the only costume choice in the show I questioned for it felt a tad out-of-place given both the elegance of the party and Budder’s professional air (it simply didn’t seem like something she would have an employee wear). These of course could be a direct results of McNally’s script, but the end result needed some polishing. Storie on the other hand certainly looked the part of the savage critic, but he never really mustered the energy to engage the audience. Many of his lines felt as if they were written to be impactful, or even vociferous, than they were delivered (a scene involving a dog comes to mind), but Storie never quite gave that extra push. And then there’s Cory Grabenstein as the eccentric, British director, Frank Finger. This is admittedly a tough one. On one hand, Finger was clearly written to be an exasperating, over-the-top, unconventional, melodramatic, brazen, and peculiar kleptomaniac, and in those regards Grabenstein delivers. And yet I had trouble enjoying roughly half of his scenes. His British accent felt a tad forced at times, and his physicality often felt over-the-top, though I’m aware that was the intention. However, the other half of the time he was onstage I found his performance delightful and hilarious. It could simply be that some scenes themselves that favored Grabenstein’s acting style while others did not; either way it’s not a performance that you’ll soon forget.
In its own words, It’s Only A Play is “…a comedy with serious overtones” and given the mounting drama in act I it’s easy to see. McNally’s script is a delightful dissection of the typical screwball comedy that takes the effort to see these characters, both as roles in their world and as roles in a play, as more than their basic titles. Not every line succeeds (McNally has a tendency to repeat the phrase “You could hear a pin drop in here” for some reason). The adaptation is certainly felt as the play is riddled with celebrity namedrops from the very first scene, many of which scream of referential humor, and I will confess that the ending lost me a bit as McNally clearly dove headfirst into meta territory that screamed of Ira Levin’sDeathtrap. But all in all It’s Only A Play is a delightful and fun play, and the Sam Bass Community Theatre has out together a quality production. A tweak could be made here or there, but nothing in the show is a deal-breaker while there are plenty of positive aspects that support the show. It certainly receives my recommendation if you’re looking for a charming production to amusingly contemplative.
It’s Only a Play continues playing at the Sam Bass Community Theatre every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm until October 8th.