A critic once complimented Doug Harris, who has a principal role in the new George Street Playhouse production of It’s Only a Play, for his “smooth charm.”
Harris figures that critic “must have been allowed to drink inside the theater.”
Audiences can draw their own conclusions about that after seeing Harris in the Terrence McNally comedy, which Harris is doing at George Street for the second time this year from November 30 through December 19.
It’s Only a Play was the closing production in George Street’s “virtual season,” a series of performances prompted by the COVID pandemic that darkened live theaters in the United States for more than a year.
All but one of the plays in that series, streamed for home viewing, were recorded at the spacious house of a member of the theater company’s board of trustees, but It’s Only a Play was mounted on a stage at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, George Street’s new home.
The comedy takes place during a Broadway opening-night party at the Manhattan townhome of a wealthy woman who is producing a show on her own for the first time.
All the action takes place in the producer’s upstairs bedroom suite while the invited and uninvited guests are partying below. Characters with various levels of interest in the show that has just opened—including the producer, the playwright, his supposed best friend, the director, the female lead, a critic, and a coat-check “boy” (Harris)—come and go as they wait for the reviews of The Golden Egg.
In what one critic described as “a New Yorker cartoon,” these characters reveal their ambitions and their frailties in dialogue peppered with insider gags about familiar Broadway personalities and about Broadway itself.
George Street’s new production the same play as the virtual version, of course, and it will be performed on the same elaborate set by David L. Arsenault with four actors who were not in the virtual production.
But now, Harris said, “We have a live audience, which is the biggest change. When you were shooting for the stage in that hybrid version, you didn’t have to plan for laughs; there was no spacing for that. In this version we’re navigating what makes theater interesting—audience interaction—making sure everything is clear to the audience.”
There are a lot of props and sight gags in this show, Harris said, and it is urgent that the staging allows the audience to see and “get” all of that.
It’s Only a Play has the ingredients inherent in farce, including multiple exits and entrances and an ensemble sometimes inhabiting the stage all at once.
Harris, who is also a playwright, said the complicated thing about farce is that it has to be precise in terms of timing, imagery, and the placement of performers.
“Everything has to be perfectly calibrated to have the effect you want,” he said. The object, he said, is to execute the play so well that the audience experiences “deliberately calibrated chaos,” not actual, spun-out-of-control chaos.
Harris’s character in this controlled mayhem is the coat-check flunky Gus P. Head, who is the classic fawning out-of-towner aspiring to a career in the theater.
“I have played several different versions of a golden retriever on stage,” he said with a laugh, “and this character would fall into that category. A lot of comedy can be biting and acerbic and alienating, but these characters have an openness and kindness to them. They’re kind and giving and also hilarious; I enjoy playing them.”
If any critic finds a “smooth charm” in Harris’s performance, Harris might not know about it, because, he said, he doesn’t make a point of reading reviews.
“It’s only because I know it’s going to work or not going to work,” he said, “and there’s nothing I can do about a review once it’s out there..”
Not that he rejects reviews in themselves: “I do read them for other plays. It’s a really cool medium.”
Harris has film credits in addition to his stage work, and he will be seen in Spooky Action, a film now in post-production.
The title comes from a remark made by Albert Einstein about a certain phenomenon in the behavior of subatomic particles.
But never mind that. This film is what Harris described as “a weird time-travel comedy.”
“A bunch of really great artists wanted to film this project,” he said, “and I was gung-ho to be a part of it.”
The cast includes Lindsey Nicole Chambers (Julia Budder), Greg Cuellar (Frank Finger), Doug Harris (Gus P. Head), Mark Junek (James Wicker), Kristine Nielsen (Virgina Noyes), Patrick Richwood (Peter Austin), Triney Sandoval (Ira Drew). The production is directed by Colin Hanlon and Kevin Cahoon.
George Street Playhouse performs in the New Brunswick Cultural Center, located at 11 Livingston Avenue in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Tickets are available for purchase online or by calling 732-246-7717.