Dallas — In Terrence McNally’s It’s Only a Play, a rich Broadway producer throws an opening night party at her posh home, where the playwright, the director, a critic/wannabe playwright and other hangers-on gather to await late-night reviews. Of the 2014 Broadway production, Variety said: “Nobody does mean-nasty-vicious like Terrence McNally, bless his black heart.” We talked to director Cheryl Denson, who returns to Uptown Players, having directed 2015’s hit musical Catch Me If You Can (book by McNally, music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Whitman) and Lyric Stage’s production of McNally’s Master Class 10 years ago. McNally, a Texas native, has been popular in North Texas lately; Uptown most recently produced a new McNally play, Mothers and Sons, and the Dallas Opera gave a world premiere to Great Scott, with a McNally libretto to Jake Heggie’s music.
Uptown Players' production of It's Only a Play features a stellar cast, led by B. J. Cleveland and Chamblee Ferguson in the roles played by Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick on Broadway in 2014; this is one in a string of shows in which Cleveland plays a role either originated by or revived by Nathan Lane (The Man Who Came to Dinner, Love! Valour! Compassion!, The Producers and, last year, The Nance). The cast also includes Cara Serber, Shannon McGrann, Luke Longacre, Steven D. Morris and Matt Holmes.
TheaterJones: What’s fun for you about It’s Only a Play?
Cheryl Denson: It’s a silly, wonderful, delightful piece with a wonderful cast. I got to direct Master Class [at Lyric Stage] and Catch Me If You Can last season—and now this one.
The play was originally written in 1986, and rewritten for the 2014 Broadway production starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. How has it changed?
I looked at one previous script, but worked from the most recent. McNally regularly rewrites his plays. The intent has to be pretty much the same. The playwright, played here by Chamblee Ferguson, claims he could write this play overnight because he’s lived it. That’s McNally. It’s a love letter and a list of grievances. McNally has the crazy directors, the actors who won’t do his lines right, producers not as astute as they might be, bad opening nights and everything he’s experienced in theater. Everybody’s at each other’s throats. Wonderful fights onstage; all the characters seriously venting.
The show is famously packed with celebrity names and references. Are you free to add some local names to the tirades in this show?
CD Name-dropping is rampant. During the first round reading, we put a hash mark every time a new name appeared. After 45 or so, we lost track. This is exactly what theater people do, quite frankly. “I worked with so and so”—and on and on. Everyone is always looking for a job. You’re gonna need one when this show is over. That insecurity allows you to relish the moment. The next job, if you get one, may be awful. You may not like the people and it might be a complete bust. No local names added. It’s set on Broadway, and ours is a regional production about that atmosphere. McNally does have Texas references. He mentions Betty Buckley and his parents in Corpus Christi, where he grew up.
Have you directed a complete bust?
I did a show that went so good in rehearsal, just before the tech check. Then nothing happened right after that night. The total package went belly up. It was a wonderful experience, but the show got awful reviews.
How much credit or blame goes to the director?
Theater is always a collective work. I get what I think are the best actors for the roles, the best set, the best costumes, and make the best decisions I can. There is always some producer or someone saying you must do X or Y, but the director is the final line of defense.
Have you ever had an actor that doesn’t follow instructions?
Yes. A girlfriend once gave an actor notes, and from then on it was hard to control his physicality. Note after note, night after night, I couldn’t stop him from doing what he was doing. A lot of times I’ve said everything I can say, but I’m not pulling a puppet on strings. Actors are fully formed human beings, you know? Some days I hate that. (Laughs.) Certainly, the longer they’ve worked, the more actors know what they can do—and we collaborate in each show to make it their best.
What’s required most from actors in this kind of comedy.
I think it takes great comic timing and that is something that is in you or is not in you. A director just can’t make that happen. This show has incredible actors.
What is comic timing?
Knowing how long to pause, how to take one little gesture and let it fill in the pause. Knowing where to set up the top of the joke to let the zinger land. Comedy also takes good taste. People want to do a sex joke and bring a vibrator on stage and that might get a laugh, but not be truly humorous. The pants hit the floor in this play, but that’s what people do from time to time. The good comic actor remembers he’s the character telling that joke. It can be funny or over-the-top to a section of the audience—but we want the whole audience laughing.
So what do you do with all these comic time bombs?
All have their own comic sense, so finding that, holding that balance, and weaving that together is what we try to do to make a scene truly revealing. Luke Longacre is funny. BJ Cleveland has an impish quality, like Nathan Lane. He’s done other Nathan Lane roles for Uptown Players. He’s the straight man here. He is pummeled about constantly. Chamblee Ferguson is the playwright. He’s so funny, with great timing and good taste. He brings also fervency about the theater, the care and passion for what the theater is and what it can become. The show is partly about the Broadway demand to make money, to put fannies in seats—no matter what. Bring the Kardashians on stage! We don’t live in that world, but we hear rumors. This show is about that almost endangered species, the new American play.
We have Hamilton and Lin-Manuel Miranda!
Yes, and I want to see it eventually. Even without him, I know the show will be terrific. When I go to New York, I see at least ten plays the week I’m there. I saw In the Heights [for which Miranda wrote music and lyrics] on one of those trips. It was tight and thrilling. There’s a charisma about Miranda that makes people want to do their best for him—a real goodness of heart.
Do you evoke that kind of performance from actors?
I try to keep us on the same page—not my page, but the truth of the playwright’s page. Paul Baker spoke of the initiating artist, the playwright. The rest of us are interpretive artists. If we go back to what’s really on the page and not get off on our own agenda, we’re on the right track. As a director, I try to be courteous and polite. I like actors. I really do. They bring as much to every rehearsal as I do. And that turns into a mutual respect eventually. I try my best not to lose my temper. If I’m lucky and have great actors, it works. I do a lot of musicals, and I try to find a place for each actor to shine—and that pays off on stage. That’s it. Actors keep taking my calls. That’s as close as I can get to an answer.