Two years ago, George Street Playhouse finally opened its long-planned, state-of-the-art theatrical complex in downtown New Brunswick, New Jersey. Within months, the coronavirus pandemic shuttered the bustling hub indefinitely. The campus finally springs back to life with a filmed production of Terrence McNally’s It’s Only a Play, shot on stage and available to stream through July 4.
This is not the company’s first foray into online theater—they’ve tackled Fully Committed and Tiny Beautiful Things in recent months—but the polish and precision of gathering a large cast together for a quick-witted comedy cannot be overvalued. The work itself, a sometimes-barbed love letter to life in a theater, also feels like an ideal choice for this in-between moment where virtual productions still dominate as in-person theater creeps back into the conversation. The choice can also be viewed as a tribute to the beloved McNally, himself an early casualty of Covid-19.
A comedy of no manners
McNally updated the play, originally written in 1985, for a Broadway revival in 2014—and it appears to have been further revised, with the now-inevitable namedropping of Hamilton. Yet the action trades on timeless theatrical stereotypes, set against the backdrop of an opening-night party that quickly devolves into dizzying chaos. Amid the lush anteroom of a tony Manhattan townhouse—rendered with casual elegance by set designer David L. Arsenault—the action quickly spirals into a comedy of no manners, with enough knowing jokes to leave a theater-lover in tears of laughter.
The proceedings center on James Wicker (Zach Shaffer), a catty actor who traded Broadway for the easy money of television, but various other familiar types abound. They include Virginia Noyes, a terminally blotto leading lady (Julie Halston); Julia Budder, a dithering society matron who’s taking up producing (Christine Toy Johnson); Ira Drew, a rancorous critic who’s crashed the gate (Triney Sandoval); and Frank Finger, a holier-than-thou British director drunk on his own hype (Greg Cuellar, costumed to the hilt by Alejo Vietti).
Over the course of two hours, they trade barbs and backstab, with occasional interruptions by Gus P. Head (the endearingly clueless Doug Harris), a green aspirant earning his keep as a cater waiter. McNally’s script is very inside baseball—if you don’t know the difference between Artaud and Brecht, perhaps consider something else—but the laughs land consistently, and even some of the more mean-spirited material sounds seductively appealing. (Of a particularly underwhelming performance, James cracks: “She was terrible. I haven’t seen a performance like that since her last one.” Who among us can’t relate?)
Mostly the middle
The material itself never truly rises above the parade of clever witticisms and twisted situations that make up a farce. Despite one character’s assertion that plays must have a beginning, middle, and end, this one is made up of mostly middle. But as far as middles go, it’s a thoroughly amusing one, especially once Andy Grotelueschen shows up as Peter Austin, a typically unbalanced playwright. Grotelueschen, a 2019 Tony nominee for Tootsie, offers a master class in preening neuroses.
The entire company is strong, although Sandoval somewhat overdoes the satisfied self-importance often associated with theater critics. (Maybe that’s just my bias speaking.) Johnson is winningly guileless as the wealthy novice, and Shaffer nicely suggests the hollowness behind James’s air-kissing Hollywood mien. Halston, a comedic powerhouse, barrels through her scenes with chaotic abandon; she captures perfectly the grande dames of Broadway’s yesteryear, and she seems to be having a great time doing it. Director Kevin Cahoon keeps the proceedings moving smoothly, but occasional issues with the videography persist—an out-of-sync vocal track here, a too-tight close-up there.
These little flaws remind you that while the actors were inside a theater, you are not. At least not yet. But as you laugh your way through It’s Only a Play, you’re left with no doubt the real deal waits just around the corner.
Image description: A scene from It’s Only a Play. Six actors in formal attire, inside a luxurious city apartment, face the camera with various expressions of shock, dismay, curiosity, and distaste.
What, When, Where
It’s Only a Play. By Terrence McNally. Directed by Kevin Cahoon. George Street Playhouse. Streaming on-demand through July 4, 2021. Tickets ($33 per household) can be purchased at georgestreetplayhouse.org.
It’s Only a Play is closed-captioned. An audio-described version of the production is also available for purchase.