It's Only a Play, After All


Some of the players in a moment of prayer

It’s Only a Play. That’s what the characters in Terrence McNally’s farcical tribute to those who toil in the theater keep telling themselves. But they say it with all of the conviction a soldier in Baghdad might say “It’s only a job.” They’re hunkered down, contemplating their fates, and hoping they don’t get killed, if only metaphorically.

It’s opening night of Peter Austin’s (David Sitler) new play The Golden Egg. In an upstairs bedroom of his producer Julia Budder’s (Jennifer Winegardner) townhouse Austin’s friend—the TV actor who turned down the male lead—James Wicker (David Edwards) seeks some refuge from the madding crowd below. Into that bedroom the entire cast (of this play, not The Golden Egg) will come and go as they await the play’s first reviews, on TV and in the newspapers.

I honestly don’t know what to make it of It’s Only a Play. Frank Rich, writing about the 1986 Broadway production in the New York Times called it “more a cascade of jokes than a play.” As I was leaving the theater a woman in front me declared to her companion, “What a terrible play.” I disagree with that woman. And I agree with Rich. But while his review was mostly favorable, I’m less inclined to give this play or this production of it my seal of approval.

What’s the problem? Well, for one thing, it’s one giant in-joke. I can see why actors and directors love this play. If you are well versed in the people and lore of Broadway, It’s Only a Play can be extremely funny at times. But if you’re just an average attendee of regional theater, which the play so humorously disparages, some of the jokes might go right over your head. Perhaps that’s why that woman didn’t care for the play.

But there could be other reasons she didn’t care for it. I found the really funny bits spaced a little too far apart. And I have some questions about the choices some of the actors and director Steve Steiner made. Emma Bovary (blame that last name on the playwright, of course) is a cab driver sent to bring back the Times’ review hot off the presses. As portrayed by the very talented Carolyn Popp I thought she was drawn a little too broadly. She seemed even more of a caricature than say Hildy, the cab driver in On The Town. On The Town is a musical comedy with its concomitant stylization so an exaggerated stereotype fits right in. In a contemporary play, even a comedy, Popp’s portrayal seemed a little over the top.

Jennifer Winegardner and Kate Konigisor

I once complained that Kate Konigisor (here playing a comeback-seeking actress named Virginia Noyes) was a bit over the top in Lend Me a Tenor. But in this production I felt she did an excellent job. The portrayal I liked best, however, was Jennifer Winegardner’s Julia Budder. She’s a wealthy Midwesterner eager to move up from mere Broadway backer to full-fledged angel, and Golden Egg is the first play she has produced. In A Grand Night for Singing she was pleasant enough but nobody in that show gets to show off any talent beyond singing. I found her Julia Budder to be endearing and very believable.

Of course I couldn’t let this review pass without mentioning Ira Drew, the theater critic drawn up in all the madness. I really liked Scott Watanabe’s characterization and the frequent good-natured digs at critics that salt the play were both funny and well-deserved. But then I’m the kind of person who might be expected to appreciate exactly such theatrical in-jokes.

Scott Watanabe and David Sitler

And speaking of critics, this is now the third play this fall season I’ve failed to review anywhere near opening night. If the Surflighters were reviewing me instead of the other way around, they’d have every right to brand me a turkey. Things have changed substantially on the job front so I should be able to return to my characteristic promptness for the remainder of the season. So I apologize for not being more prompt with this review but if you were eagerly awaiting it, relax. It’s only a play.

It's Only a Play ran at the Surflight October 4 through October 8, 2006.