Saturday, November 17, 2018

Review of It's Only A Play

It’s Only A Play by Terrence McNally

This minor Terrence McNally script, from the late  80’s or early 90’s was performed by a Galesburg group called Sugar High Theatricals. They appear to have a close knit resident company and do mainly light comedies and various kinds of musical revues. The title places it squarely in a genre I would call “Theatre Process Comedy.“ These plays concentrate on the humorous  tribulations of theatre production. They focus on theatre people who are producing plays, writing plays, auditioning for plays, performing in plays, critiquing plays etc. The type can vary from darkly philosophical like Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, to musicals like Chorus Line, and farces like Noises Off and Lend me a Tenor. Most depend, at least to some degree, on familiarity with the process, recognition of theatre lore, name dropping, and of course the delicious pleasure of seeing carefully orchestrated live events going horribly wrong.   
It’s Only a Play fits nicely into this category. A budding young playwright has just had his debut Broadway opening and the company has gathered at the opening night party to wait for the all important reviews. While the party proceeds downstairs, with all sorts of celebrities dropping in, the upstairs bedroom hosts visits from the key participants. Thus we have the playwright’s old best friend, the play’s producer, the director, the leading actress, a major critic, and finally the playwright himself. They are joined at times by a loony aspiring actress and an acerbic New York cabbie.
Of the major characters only Matt Newman, as the uncertain playwright, and to some degree the Critic and the cabbie, played by the sisters Agar, seemed to keep their performances under reasonable control. The rest of the cast, I am sorry to say, was over the top most of the time.  They shouted, wildly paced, and gesticulated too broadly for the tight audience configuration. Director Gary Mustain could have done a better job of tamping down the more extreme performances. I have to wonder if the seven or eight patrons sitting in front of us who voted with their feet at the act break were just worn out by being buffeted at close range.
The modern setting was simple and reasonably functional. It represented a bedroom in a New York City apartment and featured in addition to the beds a few tables to hold some telephones and  props. The screens off right supposedly contained the rest of the apartment and off left represented a bathroom whose sole function seemed to be as a holding pen for a barking dog that was used for a running gag. Unfortunately the beds that dominated the room seemed to push much of the action downstage into an even tighter proximity to the audience. 
McNally’s script does not help either. It shows its age with some less than politically correct characterizations about non New York audiences, Native Americans, and gays. The theatrical name dropping is from a bygone era and probably went over the head of many younger attendees. Walter Kerr and Bernie Jacobs, for instance, have not been household New York names for years.
I’ll close with a final comment on the performance space itself. With no permanent space to call home, I assume the company settled for the small ball room of the old Kensington Hotel. It is not a theatre in any sense of the word. I know that Peter Brook has called an empty space the ideal performance venue, but this one does present significant challenges for visibility, sight lines, lighting, and entrances. A few screens at the sides provided the wings, but actors still had to enter from the rear of the house to reach the screens. Three lighting instruments on a small tree were the only stage illumination. The seating chairs were placed on the floor without risers. The set proper was pretty much on the same flat floor. Thus, beyond the first row, the audience basically could see only the top half of the actors and by the time you reached the fourth row, where we were, it was constant craning to see much of anything. An arena arrangement might have helped visibility, but that would have required more lighting instruments and positions and may not have been within range for the company.
As my wife said, the show is basically kind of silly. I would add that the over the top acting did little to help out. Still credit is given to any group that sets out to do live theatre and the show did have some amusing moments. My basic recommendation is that the actors not try quite so hard to be funny. Slow down and use the face and eyes to dig out the laughs. Play a bit more deftly and reduce the use of the sledge hammer—especially when playing so close to an audience.  

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