Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Paul Goyette
“I don’t know what people want in a play anymore,” says a character in the hilarious comedy It’s Only a Play, now playing at Pride Films and Plays. (Boy that’s was a lot of “plays” in one sentence. The fact that she’s a Broadway producer may tell you everything you need to know about this show, which takes place in her home during an opening night party for a new play called The Golden Egg. This is whatever the opposite of a love letter to Broadway might be. It’s a wicked play that takes broad swipes at all sorts of stereotypes (and truths) about theatre, and playwright Terrence McNally makes every one of them count.
The producer, Julia Budder (the extremely likable Marika Mashburn), is hosting the party at her home while anxiously awaiting the opening night reviews. She is a delight, as clueless about the constant comical in-fighting and back-stabbing the play reveals about its other characters as she is about the actual phrasing of famous lines from theatre past (like Irving Berlin’s famous “There’s no business like the one we’re in”).
Reminiscent of Moss Hart’s 1948 Light Up the Sky, this farce follows its seven characters as they await the critical response to the new show. Besides Budders, the others gathered include the playwright, Peter Austin (Kevin Webb); Egg’s director, Frank Finger (Cody Jolly); Virginia Noyes, the lead actress of the play, a former Oscar-winner whose substance abuse has drummed her out of Hollywood (Sarah Hayes); James Wicker, star of a long-running sitcom (William Marquez); Ira Gwin, an acerbic critic (Jeremy Trager); and Gus, a young man pretty much literally just off the bus who is excited just to be there after landing a job as coat-check boy (Christopher Young).
Young is a hoot; his excitement at carrying the coats of luminaries like Lady Gaga and the casts of various Broadway plays is palpable. (The visual joke that these casts arrive at Budder’s house in costume is funny every time.) His head may be in the stars but he is the down-to-earth character we need to put the rest of the behind the scenes chaos into perspective. The director is so jaded about his streak of glowing reviews that he actually yearns for a bad one to call him out on his BS. (He’s known for things like a mimed Titus Andronicus that he did in drama school.)
Virginia Noyes is a mess: on every substance known to man, prone to streams of obscenities, and wearing an ankle monitor because of legal trouble. Hayes thoroughly enjoys playing her, sinking into the role so deeply that you almost want to check her purse for contraband as she leaves the theatre. As for the critic, well, Gwin hates everything, especially the work of the playwright; in his pan of Peter’s last play, he actually suggested that it would have been better had Peter’s mother smothered him in the crib. (Critics in general are lambasted in this play. Would that I could say we don't deserve it.) Trager brings this caustic creation to brilliant life; he doesn’t belong in this gathering, but he relishes every moment, recording the others’ reactions with glee.
Especially fun to record are the playwright and the sitcom actor. Though they are longtime friends, James turned down a role in Peter’s play because he thought it was going to be “a turkey”; of course, his friend doesn’t know this. The playwright’s anxiety and the actor’s cutting remarks make for truly fun dialogue. Webb has a wonderful time with both Peter's grand, long-winded speeches about the spirit of Broadway and his overwhelming anxiety. Marquez is quick and perfect with James' cutting remarks as well as his false praise.
Director Jon Martinez has done a wonderful job in shepherding all of these broad creations and making sure that the play moves along at the breakneck pace that farce requires. It’s a play that more or less relies on in-jokes about theatre for its fun, so Martinez’s delightful visual additions, such as a literal interpretation of “striking the set,” help make it more approachable to all viewers. And McNally’s script is as witty as it is biting, so there are plenty of laughs.
Fudder’s speech with which this review began goes on to say, “We want to laugh. We want to cry. We want to feel something about who we are. Take it somewhere. We’ll go with you. It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece.” It’s Only a Play may not be a masterpiece, but it is well worth the time to go with it. You’ll enjoy the trip.
It’s Only a Play is a Pride Film and Plays production now playing at 4139 N. Broadway, Chicago until Nov 11. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.