Theater Review: IT’S ONLY A PLAY (Pride Films and Plays at the Pride Arts Center)

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by Lawrence Bommer on October 18, 2018

in Theater-Chicago


There’s a glaring contradiction in It’s Only a Play: Written by the usually crafty Terrence McNally, a 20-time Broadway playwright, this two-act love letter to Broadway theater and its “plays of fools” — depicted in full fratricidal frenzy at an opening night party — utterly mocks its message. The joke is on the bitchy victims on stage and the bloodied victims in the audience.

What we get in this 2014 updating of a 1986 off-Broadway trifle is not what Moss Hart revealed in his similarly-set “inside” comedy Light Up The Sky — dreamers and schemers lifted by art above their cumulative littleness. No, it’s phony-baloney thespian caricatures, calculatedly silly and stupid. Stunted children, these nasty narcissists and pretentious parasites wax so spiteful and shallow that suddenly the theater world seems like a loony bin for very loud losers. You’d never think this guy wrote The Ritz.

Histrionically and hysterically blaring beyond bearing (screamingly funny is a contradiction in terms), Jon Martinez’s Chicago premiere for Pride Films and Plays is over the top and beyond the pale, sensationalizing and trivializing McNally’s not altogether mindless mirth. As if to prove a little can go too far in record time, the forced result is a reckless roller coaster of industrial-strength implausibility and idiocy.

The contrived, cartoonish setting is a ridiculously busy upstairs bedroom of the Manhattan townhouse of neophyte investor/producer Julia Budder (Marika Mashburn), an airhead clueless at everything but writing checks. Outside, a blizzard rages. Downstairs, Gotham celebrities swarm and snipe. Above, assembled to await the reviews of a new work called The Golden Egg is a rogues’ gallery of stock showbiz stereotypes that were old school in Roman comedy.

Along with two-inch-deep Julia, we meet James Wicker (William Marquez), the playwright’s epicene pal for whom the part was written — except that six seasons ago this insecure egomaniac became a hack in a precarious television series. (Nathan Lane played him in 2014, later replaced by Martin Short.) The flash-in-the-pan dramatist, a one-hit wonder, is Peter Austin (Kevin Webb), a bilious believer soon to be cut down to cellular level. Wishing each other woe, they exchange hypocritical compliments with Trumpian prevarication.

Adding self-pity to McNally’s witches brew is washed-up semi-starlet Virginia Noyes (Sarah Hayes), a pill-popping, whiskey-chugging, cocaine-snorting pleading lady whose ankle monitor went off during the performance. Her comeback is a fiasco but at least she wants to make good. Not so the fatuous Brit director Frank Finger (Cody Jolly), a much-indulged O.B.E. recipient and clumsy kleptomaniac: Convulsed with the imposter phenomenon, this snarlingly witless wunderkind desperately wants a flop.

Completing the menagerie — and definitely not in this inner circle (a coterie which proves Quentin Crisp’s adage that “Other people are a mistake”) — is peppy Gus (Christopher Young), hired help and kept boy on the make. (He throws the guests’ costumes on the bed — which becomes a ridiculous running joke: The casts of Hamilton and The Lion King supposedly arrive in full costume.)

Finally, the ultimate odd man out — and chief butt of McNally’s unrighteous wrath — is Ira Gwin (Jeremy Trager), an amoral theater critic with conflicts of interest you could drive a truck through. A transparently frustrated dramatist who’s crashing this reception before he pans Austin’s rotten Egg, this take-no-prisoners scribe has written 38 plays under pseudonyms so he can corruptly promote them.

The second-act’s predictable calamity is a mendaciously unprofessional pan by Ben Brantley in The NYT, a flagrantly unfunny diatribe that manages to insult everyone in the bedroom without shedding the least light on a paltry play’s multiple fails. (The fact that we never learn what the play was about speaks volumes here.)

Of course, recriminations ensue where before this fractured “family” had taken a sardonic group selfie. Still somehow, after being read to filth in every publication, these demented survivors moronically scheme to replace Egg with new projects as doomed as the turkey that just got roasted.

Here, as the once-persuasive author of Love!  Valour! Compassion! frantically hurls seven needy neurotics through three different endings, McNally hits a career low, his exasperatingly unfunny, relentlessly heavy-handed backstage comedy “defying gravity” as it bottoms out.

Whatever this play intended as a hymn to hope-ridden artists reaching beyond their grasp, what actually transpires on The Broadway’s stage is a high-energy, too-loud-to-be-true libel on the passion to perform. All the concentrated conviction of P.F.&P.’s septet can’t redeem this 130-minute hissy fit, a dramatic “disruption” starring drama queens from hell. It’s only a turkey.

photos by Paul Goyette

It’s Only a Play
Pride Films and Plays
The Broadway, Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 3:30
ends on November 11, 2018
for tickets, call 773.857.0222 or visit Pride Films and Plays

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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