“It’s Only A Play” an over-the-top romp
TWN comedy at Bennett Hall through July 7
By Jim Sulzer, Contributing Writer
Theatre Workshop of Nantucket has kicked off its 2018 summer season with a hilarious comedy about the theatre world, “It’s Only a Play,” now at Bennett Hall. Brought vividly to life by a brilliant cast, spot-on direction and an elegant set, Terrence McNally’s effervescent play straddles the line between realism and hyperbole and delivers laughs by the bushel.
“It’s Only a Play” offers a behind-the-scenes look at the angst and turmoil of the cast, producer and playwright in the hours after the opening of a new play on Broadway, “The Golden Egg,” by “America’s oldest-living most promising young playwright.” Peter Austin (Timothy Booth). All the action occurs in the upscale bedroom of the producer, Julia Budder (Sarah Fraunfelder), a place of both refuge and worry, up a flight of stairs from the unseen party Budder is throwing downstairs. Between opening-night jitters, the playwright’s maniac desperation for a smash hit and the tortured wait for the all-important New York Times review, there’s plenty of plot points that involve the glorious collisions of swashbuckling egos, and plenty of moments of bitter heart-break and mutual recrimination.
As a frame for the story, McNally opens the play by introducing a few outsiders, starting with the temporary help, Gus P. Head. An actor/singer wannabe fresh off the farm, Gus greets the famous guests downstairs and drags ever-more-massive loads of overcoats up the stairs. Sterling Gates, a junior at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, gives a delicious rendition of the star-struck Gus, milking his every reaction to maximum effect and, in the second act, showcasing a fine voice in his highly-stylized rendition of “Defining Gravity”. Gus shares the opening scenes with James Wicker, the playwright’s best friend who has flown in from Hollywood for the opening.
A former stage actor who played the lead in Austin’s first his, Wicker has since sold out and now stars in a weekly TV series. Rian Jairell, new to TWN, is exceptional as this central character who carries many scenes and, in fact, never leaves the stage. His character is, in part, a vehicle for granting the audience an outsider’s perspective on the wackiness and absurdity of everyone involved in “The Golden Egg.” Jairell’s facial expressions are priceless as he reacts to the self-absorption of those around him.At the same time, he displays his own fell palette of snarkiness, petty jealousies and ego. He’s more than willing to throw anyone under the bus, including his best friend, and reveals himself to be as blind and self-absorbed as those he criticizes.
What adds to our enjoyment of the play, of course, is our knowledge that the vanities it satires do not belong to theatre people alone. The pretensions, the blind spots, these are foibles we all share. Even the one sympathetic character in the play, the wealthy producer Julia Budder, does not escape McNally’s acid touch. The talented Fraunfelder (one of the two year-round islanders in the cast) creates a genuinely nice character who – nonetheless – reveal some amusing gaps in her knowledge of theater and indeed the world in general. She misquotes everyone, starting with Irving Berlin. She misunderstands the notions of striking the scenery and what a “hit” is. In a fine piece of acting, Fraunfelder maintains a delicate balance, delivering laughs at her character’s expense while projecting her basic decency.
Tim Booth, as the play-wright Peter Austim, is convincingly stressed and overwrought on the night that he hopes will be the culmination of his career. In one wonderful scene, he manages to lead all the other character in “a playwright’s prayer,” convincing them to fall to their knees as they plead for success and good reviews. Toward the end of the play, when he accepts a phone call of congratulation from his father, he creates a genuinely touching moment as he tries to sell half-truths and evasions to his father. Sara Fetgatter, new to TWN, gives a riotous portrayal of Virginia Noyes, the star with an electronic bracelet and some serious personal issues. She complains about her parole officer’s insistence that she call in so frequently. Fetgatter fills her role with infectious energy, carryinging all of her star- sized emotions to the limit.
Kamal Sehrawy, a recent graduate of NYU’s Tisch School, shows a strong presence in the bringing forth the most edgy character of them all, the soon-to-be-knighted young director, Frank Finger. Moody and elusice, he is a troubled kleptomaniac with a desire to fail. Sehrawy gives a supercharged portrayal of Finger’s psychic breakthrough when he relives a trauma from his childhood in an entertaining fit of outrageously uninhibited theatre. Rounding out the cast of characters is Ira Drew, a sardonic theatre critic with a secret or two of his own. Islander Scott Corry plays the role with humor and cunning. He gives Drew some creepily-annoying traits (a weird laugh, a certain cluelessness about when to tell a joke and when to remain silent) that define this unsavory piece of humanity who, after an earlier play Austin, wrote in a review that Austin’s parents should have smothered him in the crib.
Lines like this, and others, sometimes take “It’s Only A Play” far past realism and even past stereotype, int a scorching mix of satire and surrealism. These extreme forays exist side by side with the more human and realistic moments of the play and might be difficult for some directors to reconcile. But Jedediah Schultz (who staged the splendid TWN production of “Venus in Fur” two years ago) harmonizes the various elements of McNally’s script into one coherent, highly-enjoyable piece of theater. The staging flows effortlessly, the characters are well-defined, the laughs keep coming and the moments of pathos are believable. The production is graced by Peter Waldron’s beautiful set, an elegant upscale bedroom somewhere in Manhattan. It’s especially gratifying to see an iconic David Hostetler sculpture and a lovely portrait (of Julia) by John Devaney. The lighting by Stephan Petrilli is effective and timely, and the costumes by Jimm Halliday are fittingly glamourous, through sometimes covered with food, as the characters work out their interwoven and messy fates. Because of frequent language issues and adult topics, this wouldn’t be a good show for young kids.