A fine line separates farce from chaos.
If you have seen an amateur production of Noises Off, you may have seen chaos.
If you see the George Street Playhouse production of It’s Only a Play, you will see farce, and farce well done.
It’s Only a Play—which George Street also mounted during its—COVID-driven virtual season—is the handiwork of Terrence McNally, who died last year as a result of the virus.
The scene is the bedroom suite of a wealthy Manhattanite, Julia Budder, who has put up the dough to produce a Broadway play.
Downstairs in the plush townhouse, an opening-night party is at full force, what with Liza Minnelli, Hillary Clinton, Rosie O’Donnell, and the cast of The Lion King on hand.
Upstairs, in the bedroom, Julia and several others—a coat-check flunky, the director, the playwright, the leading lady, a critic, and an actor who took a pass on this play—hang out while they await the reviews.
These characters alternately commiserate and spar with each other as each nurses his or her own vested interest in what the critics—especially The Times critic—are about to do for or to this play.
Those with a particular interest in New York theater might get a special kick out the diatribes about what ails Broadway—you know: commercialism, revivals, star vehicles, British imports.
But the draw here is the way this cast, co-directed by Kevin Cahoon and Colin Hanlon, delivers McNally’s crackling dialogue and carries out the physical gags.
The timing, the double takes, the slow burns, the hurtled props: it all works.
This is a true ensemble piece with Doug Harris as the flunky, Mark Junek as the actor who took a pass, Kristine Nielsen as the leading lady, Greg Cuellar as the director, Lindsay Nicole Chambers as the producer, Triney Sandoval as the critic, and Patrick Richwood as the playwright.
There’s no upstaging here, but it’s hard not to focus on Kristine Nielsen’s bravura performance as leading lady Virginia Noyes. This grande dame is so enamored of drugs that she wears an ankle bracelet and checks in with her parole officer. She has just returned to Broadway after an exile in Hollywood, and she’s convinced that her triumph in this play will be sweet revenge against those SOBs in Los Angeles.
Everything about Nielsen’s portrayal is hilarious: her delivery, her reactions, her profanity, her physical presence all combine to provoke gales of laughter that often linger over the ensuing dialogue.
Credit Patrick Richwood, too, for a nuanced portrayal of the playwright who senses that, at last, he has achieved what every playwright lives for—a Broadway hit. Amid the uproar that repeatedly erupts in this play, McNally’s script allows the characters substantial monologues, and the soft-spoken Richwood makes the most of the opportunity to weave employ pathos and humor to evoke the moments in which a theatrical artist dangles between elation or heartbreak.
Doug Harris is endearing as the coat-check boy—he’s really an aspiring actor, you know—who has just arrived in New York and can’t stop saying “wow,” and Greg Cuellar camps it up to a glorious pitch as the kleptomanic English director who writes OBE after his name but longs to be told, just once, that his work stinks.
But there are no weak figures in this cast as they tell this story on David L. Arsenault’s stunning set.
Terrence McNally introduced this play in 1982 after an earlier version failed. It has been performed off-off, off, and on Broadway and in regional theaters far and wide.
The evidence on the George Street stage is that “It’s a Play,” with the right cast and direction, is still a winner.
It's Only A Play runs until December 19, 2021. Click here for more information or to purchase tickets.
Photos by T. Charles Erickson