Dallas — What happens backstage doesn’t stay backstage in It’s Only a Play, Terrence McNally’s grumpy funny valentine to Broadway theater, written in 1986 and refurbished as a hit vehicle in 2014 for Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. Uptown Players’ stylish production features a top-notch comic cast under Cheryl Denson’s astute direction, giving this play about a play that inspires still another play the polished sheen of Broadway glamour.
In the navel-gazing tradition of poems about poetry, painting about painting, etc., we get a way-long look at the cogs in the merry machine that is a Broadway show as they all await the first reviews. All huddle in the producer’s swank Manhattan apartment, filled with gleaming modern art and mauve and vanilla furnishings in a rich set designed Kevin Brown and Josh Hensley.
The show abounds with viciously funny one-liners as it shines a pitiless light on the nerves of those who perform live for fame and fortune. There are even glimmers here and there of a love for the great dramatic tradition of American theater.
Slender, elegant Chamblee Ferguson is the promising playwright Peter Austin, who’s delivered the goods in recent productions, but is on edge and eventually on hands and knees, praying for the deliverance of good reviews for this latest play, The Golden Egg. Sweetly touching in his epiphany about being a part of the tradition that includes Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill, Ferguson’s Austin makes us feel his passion—at least describing his ramble along the historic theaters in the neighborhood.
Stout, expansive, eye-rolling B.J. Cleveland is James Wicker (“not Wacker!”), Allen’s drama school buddy, and a former Broadway leading man whose long-running TV series is on the verge of cancellation. Cracking in-jokes a mile a minute, and shrugging off newbies that don’t get it, Wicker is the very soul of snark.
Beautiful Cara Statham Serber, fetching in a glittering gown, is Julia Budder, the generous and clueless producer throwing “the party of the year for the play of the year,” and inviting the cast of virtually all the Broadway shows up and running. In a bright visual running gag, the doorman keeps throwing celebrity coats on the bed, including a seven-foot tall mink from Tommy Tune, and a pile of bright African cloaks from The Lion King cast. The 18th century uniforms from Hamilton’s cast are gathered up and returned. “They got a better offer: The White House,” he explains. Uptown’s award-winning costume designer Suzi Cranford outdoes herself in this show.
Outsize and oozing disdain, Luke Longacre is the British director Frank Finger, a pretentious nutcase and critically acclaimed theater bad boy hungry for his first damning review. Frank sympathizes with his aging, once-famed leading lady Virginia Noyes, a Percocet and coke addict wearing a rehab ankle bracelet, hilariously embodied by Shannon J. McGrann. Smiling crazily, she dumps her Xanax and other happy meds to share with any and all, telling Wicker she’s never heard of his TV series. “I do a lot of self-destructive things, but I draw the line at television,” the loopy lady declares.
Steven D. Morris is preposterously fawning and heavy-footed as Ira Drew, the theater critic who longs to be a playwright. In his blessing, Austin includes his enemies: “Bless all critics who are really failed playwrights,” he prays—and Morris’ Ira fumbles and frets and fills the bill.
Matt Holmes does an energetic turn as Gus, the “interdisciplinary actor” just arrived in the city and thrilled to be working as the doorman, awestruck by the likes of seeing Denzel Washington, Lady Gaga and buckets of other names strewn throughout the show by everybody. The pop culture and political references have been updated, although a few things were missed in the rewrite (a mention of Zaire would have worked in 1986, but that country’s name was officially changed to The Congo in 1997.)
Each character has a turn in the spotlight, and the zingers and insults fly fast and furiously, as the hand wringing over what The New York Times critic will say swells to hysteria, collapse or simply putting an ironic face on things. What will the verdict be? When they read the review, it’s a hilarious jab at theater critics, too, with a love-letter list of contemporary playwriting critical darlings, including Annie Baker, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, “the Adams” (Bock and Rapp) and Amy Herzog. That’s one of several inside-baseball jokes—Caryl Churchill and Antonin Artaud are also name-checked—that only theater diehards will get.
You have to see the show to find out the official review—and the glitz and glamour of the production are winning. The show runs two hours and 30 minutes, and after so much clever backstabbing and eyebrow-raising disdain, the joke grows a little stale. It’s Only a Play has its fun moments—but a near-constant barrage of sarcasm almost smothers the underlying love of theater in the play.