Waiting on the reviews

Act II Playhouse presents Terence McNally’s It’s Only a Play

3 minute read
In evening wear in a luxurious hotel suite, the characters react differently to something that one is reading on a smartphone
From left: Tony Braithwaite, Nick Cardillo, Steven Wright, Megan McDermott, and Tom Teti in Act II’s ‘It’s Only a Play.’ (Photo by Mark Garvin)

The original version of Tony-winning playwright Terence McNally’s It’s Only a Play premiered as Broadway, Broadway in 1978, starring Geraldine Page. The reviews were bad, and it closed in previews in Philadelphia. It would be seven more years before something closer to the version we know now opened off-Broadway. It was a huge success, and a new production from Ambler’s Act II Playhouse continues the laughs.

The play now onstage at this intimate theater isn’t actually the revised 1985 show (which starred Christine Baranski). Rather, it’s the result of further revisions by McNally, who brought the show up to date for a 2014 Broadway run. Now, it’s an outstanding production and very funny.

The show opens in the hotel suite of the wealthy producer of The Golden Egg, a play-within-a-play that has just opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Playwright Peter Austen (Steven Wright) is headed to the after-party along with his old friend James Wicker (Act II artistic director Tony Braithwaite), who arrives first and fills us in on how bad the play is, particularly the lead actor—Wicker himself had to turn down a role that was written for him because of his TV contract.

In short order, Wicker is joined by the bellhop (Nate Miles-McLean), an aspiring actor; producer Julia Budder (Megan McDermott); lead actor Virgina Noyes (E. Ashley Izard); Peter, the playwright; director Frank Finder (Nick Cardillo), and theater critic Ira Drew (Tom Teti). If this seems like a lot, it’s not. McNally gives each a unique comedic element that keeps us engaged and laughing as they discuss the quality of the recent performance and are reminded: it’s only a play.

They are all together to await the early reviews, hoping for success that will lead to a long Broadway run. Budder is sweet but somewhat of a malapropism-making simpleton. Noyes is an experienced actor with lots of issues: she wears an ankle monitor because of her criminal record and drug addiction. Finger is a talented young director but also a bit of a thief. And Drew is simply a mean critic who has a nasty word for everyone.

Braithwaite brings acerbic dry humor to the role of Wicker. Teti’s critic has a curmudgeonly quality that is cruel but wildly funny. My favorite was Izard as the brash yet insecure star dealing with the reviews as well as her other problems. Director Kevin Glaccum has assembled a hilarious ensemble with different comedic styles.

There are jokes about Hollywood versus New York and about TV and film versus live theater. There are jokes about the famous people that were in the audience. There are intellectual jokes and bad jokes. Yet this isn’t a slapstick comedy; it is a smart one. We are laughing at the situations presented and the lies they tell.

Set designer Parris Bradley’s simple but lovely hotel suite is so close in Act II’s intimate space that we are almost in the room with the characters. And costume designer Katherine Fritz outfitted the cast with beautiful opening-night formal wear.

When the first act ends, the reviews are just starting to appear. The laughter doubles in the second act. Comedy is such a personal thing and what appeals to one person may not translate into laughs for another, so I wondered whether this play would appeal as much to a younger generation as it did to me and to the mostly senior audience in attendance. Still, the ensemble captivates with every word.

What, When, Where

It’s Only a Play. By Terence McNally, directed by Kevin Glaccum. $32-$49. Through April 14, 2024, at Act II Playhouse, 56 E Butler Avenue, Ambler. (215) 654-0200 or act2.org.


Those using wheelchairs can enter Act II through a side exit door that leads to a ramped aisle in the theater; call the box office in advance to arrange. The venue has an indoor elevator that accesses the theater, upper lobby, and restrooms.

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