Frances Taua’s production of “It’s Only A Play” is the best kind of comedy, in that it keeps getting funnier with every scene but has more on its mind than simply generating laughter. Penned by playwright Terrence McNally (whose greatest works include “Master Class,” “Frankie and Johnny in the Claire De Lune” and “Love! Valour! Compassion!”) , this farce, about the backstage shenanigans following an opening night on Broadway, is the author’s chance to satirize and carve into the theater world. By examining the give and take between playwrights and cruel theater critics, actors and directors, producers and divas, McNally wrings laughter and sharp observations on the ways Broadway’s blockbuster mentality is both an asset and a hindrance to the longevity of a play’s duration.
Following the final curtain of a new play on Broadway, we witness an anxious group meeting in a closed off room, where they reflect on how the show went, the state of their careers and await the wave of pivotal first reviews. The ensemble consists of an actor (played by David Belew), a self destructive actress (played by Kathy Collins), the playwright (played by John Galvan), the director (played by Logan Heller), the producer (played by Sharleen Lagattuta), a random coat checker (Elisha Cullins) and a theater critic (played by Vinnie Linares). All of them range from jittery, on-edge or utterly unhinged, and this is before the first reviews arrive.
McNally has clearly been here before- savage opening night reviews can kill whatever slim chances a non-musical and/or non-franchise production can have lasting alongside the likes of “Hamilton” or “The Lion King” in New York City. Taua and his cast know this and not only take part in the spoofery but send up the essence of backstage egos and theater families. For a work so bittersweet, there’s a great deal of joy in this production.
Belew’s extended opening phone call sets the tone of his robust performance. Galvan enters the show giving a strangely touching monologue that sets a distinct tone for his performance; his character may be big but Galvan makes him truly moving. Cullins has a great scene near the end of the first act, a surprise solo that took me off guard. Linares’ comic energy astonishes, as he enters the show like a tornado and crafts a wicked, stylish take on a maniacal theater critic (and no, his character doesn’t remind me of anyone…and even if it did, I wouldn’t own up to it).
Lagatutta is wonderful, not settling for playing her role as a ditz and, instead, giving genuine heart to her characterization. This is a warm, bubbly and smart performance. Heller is a marvel and invests so much comic innovation into his weird character; his crazed monologue about a childhood memory is hysterical, as is his performance overall; there are moments of go-for-broke physical humor that dazzle, many of which come from Heller. Then there’s Collins, spectacularly funny at playing a movie star burnout, whose theater comeback is thwarted by an ankle bracelet (one of many running gags that pay off again and again). Collins makes every line crackle, though I’m still laughing at this cheerful entry line: “Dogs love valium.”
“It’s Only a Play” is a wonderful takedown on the current state of Broadway, with everything from “The Phantom of the Opera” to “Rock of Ages” getting razzed, though there are also verbal shots fired at Harold Pinter and David Mamet. It’s all in good fun, though McNally has a point: The Big Apple is overrun with lavish musicals based on movies or mainstays that seemingly never go away. There’s not enough original theater or smaller scale dramas in the midst of too much pre-packaged gloss. McNally’s solution is practical, though his complaints about where modern theater art stands is voiced through Linare’s critic: “I love the theater, it’s what people are doing to it I can’t stand.”
As the press releases have indicated, this show is a grand time for grownups but not for keiki. McNally’s clever prose is peppered with foul language, though that isn’t to say that I wasn’t laughing for most of the show. I’d advise parental discretion for younger patrons but advise anyone old enough to buy a ticket for an R-rated movie to see this immediately.
The energy was high from the very first scene and Taua keeps the timing sharp and the pacing tight. There’s well timed sound f/x that adds to the atmosphere, plus a subplot involving a dog that pays off big in the final moments. Best of all, this cast leapfrogs over the potential to make their roles caricatures, brings heart and life to their characters and create outbursts of laughter that only grow with each passing scene. “It’s Only a Play” isn’t only a play but a total riot and a grand collection of comedic force.
It’s Only a Play is showing at the ProArts Playhouse, located at Azeka’s Marketplace, next to Taco Bell. The remaining performances are Saturday, 1/26 at 7:30pm and Sunday, 1/27, at 3pm. Tickets are available at proartsmaui.com or by calling 808-463-6550.