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Though the name-dropping is fast and furious and the jokes relentlessly inside, it’s hard to imagine any patrons—even ones who’ve never ventured near a Broadway stage—feeling left out of the fun at Terrence McNally’s show-biz spoof It’s Only a Play. The passions let loose in MetroStage’s theatrical funhouse are primal. The stereotypes date back to Aeschylus. So, probably, do the hors d’oeuvres, but that’s another story.
“I love the theater,” says the salt-of-the-earth taxi driver who doesn’t arrive onstage until late in Act 2. “I don’t go, but I love it.” She’s the outsider who’s been charged with bringing the late edition of the New York Times to the opening night party for the unfortunately titled opus The Golden Egg. A glitzy Broadway bash is by then in full swing at the Manhattan town house of the show’s producer. And while everyone’s ostensibly waiting for the critical reaction, the aroma of “turkey” hangs so insistently over the proceedings that it might as well be Thanksgiving.
Downstairs, the glitterati can be heard chattering over canapés as Lena Horne sings for her supper and Carol Channing threatens to join her. Upstairs, huddled in the producer’s study with one ear cocked toward the phone and the other toward the TV, are the folks who’ll be most affected by the reviews everyone’s so anxiously awaiting. Ignoring snatches of less interesting news (“A crowded 747 went down…”; “Singer Barbra Streisand was found…”) they click from channel to channel with single-minded determination, listening mostly for their own names.
Count among them: The vain playwright (Jack Vernon) who had the misfortune to enter his own opening night party two steps in front of Arthur Miller so that cries of “author, author” were instantly transformed into “Arthur, Arthur”; the aging and increasingly stoned star (Paula Gruskiewicz) whose ever-more-elaborate curtsies keep landing her flat on her face; the insecure director (Jeff Binder) whose triumphs with “an all-male Wild Duck, a spoken Aida, an art-deco Three Sisters, and a gay Godot” have left him flabbergasted that no one can see he’s a no-talent fraud; the dim, first-time producer (Kathryn Chase Bryer) who fancies herself “the next earth mother of the American theater”; and the bitchy, washed-up TV actor (Lawrence Redmond) who turned down the leading role and has now come to snipe about the man who got it, just in case it’s a hit. There’s also a fresh-off-the-bus-from-Kan sas waiter (Daryl M. Losupone) who auditions for anyone who’ll listen, and New York’s nastiest critic (Gary Telles), who’s fawning on the very folks he’s so often trashed, trying to peddle a script he’s written under a nom de plume.
The backstabbing is waspish and generally uproarious in Lee Mikeska Gardner’s snappy staging, the joke at least partly being that the same theater folk who decry the viciousness of those fabled cretins, the critics, are perfectly capable of shredding a play and its participants before the reviews arrive. Mikeska Gardner also realizes that McNally is sending up the self-absorption of those who work in this business we call “show,” however, and sees to it that no one emerges entirely unscathed. That the playwright is traversing a well-worn path—Michael Frayne’s Noises Off, David Mamet’s A Life in the Theater, Moss Hart’s Light Up the Sky and a few dozen other shows having been there before—doesn’t diminish either his or the director’s contributions.
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First produced at Manhattan Theater Club in 1985 and substantially rewritten for a production at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum in 1992, It’s Only a Play has been adapted in a number of small ways for its Washington debut. Listen closely, and you’ll hear local names being dropped along with those of N.Y. notables, as when a Shakespeare Theater jacket is added to the pile of minks on a divan and the company’s director, Michael Kahn, is said to be chatting downstairs at the party. Other references to locals include the playwright-within-the-play bragging that he’s been asked by Signature Theater’s Eric Schaeffer to collaborate on a musical with the company’s honorary board member, Stephen Sondheim. There’s a reference to Washington Post critic Lloyd Rose (“Who’s he?”) that’ll go right over the heads of patrons unaware that Rose is a woman, while the scabrous, all-important New York Times review originally attributed to Frank Rich is now attributed to once-and-future-Postie David Richards, who briefly succeeded Rich at the Times. And on top of all that, local broadcast personalities Arch Campbell and Robert Aubrey Davis have been persuaded to tape self-parodying bits as, respectively, a bumpkinish TV critic and an erudite blowhard.
Oddly, the joke that seems most specifically tailored to a cast member—Redmond’s line that he rather liked McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune (for which the actor won a Helen Hayes Award nomination three years ago at Studio Theater)—is just a pleasant happenstance, having been in the original script in 1985.
A churlish critic of the sort depicted in the play might note that the second act is uneven, not to mention a trifle over-moist in its final stages when the playwright succumbs to the sort of temptation that frequently infects the writers of show-biz sagas and wallows in sentiment for 20 minutes. But never mind. You’ll hear no such carping from these quarters. Instead, what say we concentrate on MetroStage’s savvy production and appropriately over-the-top acting and the fact that the evening as a whole is a hoot.
Amy Freed’s The Psychic Life of Savages—which casts fictionalized incarnations of troubled American poets Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, and Ann Sexton and Plath’s Welsh poet/husband Ted Hughes as protagonists in a sort of all-versifying, all- paranoid, all-suicidal Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—was having an off night when I caught up with it last Wednesday. You could tell because the timing at Woolly Mammoth was ragged: The actors kept pausing for laughs that for some reason weren’t forthcoming, but had clearly been there for other performances. At the curtain call, their smiles seemed decidedly forced.
Interestingly, the show still worked. Reputations were shredded, creative impulses mocked, and stylistic flourishes reduced to predictable tics. It just wasn’t as funny on this particular evening as director Howard Shalwitz obviously meant it to be. When Cynthia Bassham’s riveting Sylvia Fluellen (clearly Plath, but Freed changed names to protect the guilty) puttered around the kitchen baking pies and trying to be the best little housewife this side of Betty Crocker while having flashbacks to her shock therapy sessions, or Naomi Jacobson’s bright, deceptively airy Ann Bittenhand (read: Sexton) talked about the “time bomb in her brain” that had just gone off, it was easy to sense the outlines of farce. This was also true when Will Marchetti’s reined-in Dr. Robert Stoner (née Lowell) and John Lescault’s feral Ted Magus (or Hughes) began trashing one another’s poetic methods on a radio show called Pot Shots. But while the actors’ inflections made the punch lines clear, actually laughing at them became progressively more difficult. The Woollies are adept at milking madness and suicide for laughs, but except when Sylvia was hallucinating Emily Dickinson (a wacky Deb Gottesman in hoop skirts) during her shock treatments and the two were arguing about the efficacy of off-rhymes, my audience just wasn’t buying it.
In fairness to the production, let’s acknowledge that Freed is after something in Savages that’s as devilishly complicated as it is potentially rewarding. She’s insisting that the audience appreciate the cleverness of her poetic parodies—Ted’s “Afternoon of a Slug” for instance, which is filled with ludicrously gooey phallic imagery—while simultaneously apprehending the pain that made her characters create the poems. Even when the evening isn’t a savagely riotous romp through the fields of poetic license, it succeeds in being at once a parody of the seething confessional styles of ’50s literary icons and a reductio ad absurdum of the notion that insanity and art go hand in hand.
For what it’s worth, I was intrigued enough by the experience of seeing it not quite work that I’m going to head back and see the show again on the assumption that when the whole thing does come together—and reports are that it did during previews and again last weekend—it must do so with considerable snap.