BWW Review: Opening Night Frantic Antics Fuel the Humor in Terrence McNally's IT'S ONLY A PLAY at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre
Terrence McNally debuted his comedy IT'S ONLY A PLAY on Broadway in 2014 featuring an all-star cast including F. Murray Abraham, Matthew Broderick, Stockard Channing, Nathan Lane, and Megan Mullally. The smash hit takes a devilishly witty look behind the scenes at the opening night party of a play whose cast, director and producer have good reasons to be worried about its soon-to-be-published reviews. Taking place in real time, we get to be a fly on the wall, witnessing the wide range of human emotions that somehow always unite us all, or at least allow us to see our own frailties depicted up on the stage.
Since McNally believes the purpose of theater is to explore what connects us as human beings and how to build bridges between people, it makes perfect sense he knew exactly what it is like waiting backstage for the critics' reviews, which somehow were published within hours of a play's opening night performance. And as any of us know who have been in a play, there is no way of knowing exactly what will go wrong, but it's guaranteed to happen on every opening night of every show.
Directed by Aric Martin with a real appreciation of McNally's wit and a keen sense of how to keep the actors moving at a pace that perfectly reflects their intense emotional turmoil, IT'S ONLY A PLAY now onstage at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre in Santa Monica takes us inside the master bedroom suite of producer Julia Budder's luxurious Manhattan townhouse where the cast and production team are gathering, while a who's who list of celebrities is gathering to eat and drink their way into the wee hours of the morning after the opening night of Peter Austin's new play as he anxiously waits to see if his show is a hit.
With his career on the line, Peter (Chris Aruffo) shares his big First Night with his "best" friend James Wicker (David Callander), now a television series star who passed on playing the lead role in Austin's play, his novice producer Julia Budder (Kelly McReynolds), his doped-up diva Virginia Noyes (Joanna Churgin), his genius director Frank Finger (Justin Heller), a lethal drama critic Ira Drew (Michael Bernstein), and Gus P. Head (Kent Navarrette), a fresh-off-the-bus coat check attendant on his first night in Manhattan. The evening turns out to be alternately raucous, ridiculous and tender - and shows that sometimes the biggest laughs happen offstage at the after party!
The playwright nervously awaiting the make-or-break review on opening night has been the setting of many stage and movie scenes. But in this play, McNally runs with the idea, taking no prisoners across two acts boasting almost as many Broadway name-drops as punch lines, all delivered with perfect comic timing by a cast of talented actors who know how important it is to both give and take with each other as the wide range of human emotions overcomes the "stars" who hope and pray this play will revive their struggling careers. And all the while, the laughs abound non-stop.
The always luminous Joanna Churgin is a riot as the foul-mouthed, drug-addicted, under house arrest, ankle bracelet wearing, fading leading lady Virginia whose answer to any negative emotion is to open her purse and grab whichever drug seems to fulfill the moment's need. And there are many of those moments as her insecurities get fueled when the first bad review comes in. And just wait until you see her dance when the ankle bracelet starts vibrating!
Justin Heller commands the stage as the frantic and furiously self-absorbed director Frank Finger, especially during his major breakdown when he rants his way back and forth across the stage! And just wait until Peter, Ira and James get into their own male ego battles, with each trying to promote their respective skills amid multiple attacks from the sequestered group.
Kelly McReynolds floats about the stage, dressed to the nines in an evening gown designed by Kristie Mattsson. It's very apparent that Julia has no idea what it takes to produce a play, with her major concern not be embarrassed by backing a flop. And Gus, the starstruck innocent, steals each scene in which he enters with a crazy assortment of coats from recent celebrity arrivals to add to the collection on the bed, making sure everyone realizes exactly whose coat he has the honor or carrying - or wearing. And trust me, Navarrette channels every single fan who has ever been lucky enough to get that close to any famous person! And how to commemorate the night? With a selfie of course!
Terrence McNally's barb-filled love letter to the madness of high-stakes New York theater, IT'S ONLY A PLAY, continues at The Morgan-Wixson Theatre, 2627 Pico Blvd. in Santa Monica through Feb. 9, 2020, with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Audience talk-backs immediately following the performances on January 26 and February 7. Reserved seat tickets ( Adults $25, Seniors $23, Students $20 with group rates available) are available from the theater's box office, online at www.morgan-wixson.org or by phone at 310-828-7519 or by email at email@example.com. This hilarious comedy includes a wild variety of adult language, brief drug use, and adult themed references, making the show recommended for ages 13 and up.
The Morgan-Wixson Theatre's 73rd mainstage season continues with Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party, directed by Kristin Towers Rowles, March 14 through April 11, 2020; Lynn Nottage's Sweat, directed by Elina De Santos, May 2 through 24, 2020; and The Music Man, directed by Marc Antonio Pritchett, wraps up the season from June 27 through August 1, 2020. Morgan-Wixson's Youth Education/Entertainment Series (Y.E.S.) presents The Emperor's New Clothes, directed by Eve Keller, from February 1 through February 16, 2020.
Easy, free parking is available a block west of the theater, and there are lots of great restaurants within walking distance.
Photo credit: Brian Norris