REVIEW: “IT’S ONLY A PLAY” —Newport Theatre Arts Center, Newport Beach

Updated: Jun 19

"The sort of play that puts the "broad" in Broadway."


Nobody does mean-nasty-vicious like Terrence McNally, bless his black heart. The pitiless playwright has overhauled his “It’s Only a Play,” a 1986 love-hate letter to those big, big stars who work and play on Broadway, and updated it for a more present-day celebrity roast. And the well-aimed, highly personal zingers are more malicious, and delicious, this time out.


After an initial false step in 1978 (when the show, then called “Broadway, Broadway,” flopped out of town), the concept clicked in 1982, when the show was retooled and re-launched Off Off Broadway by the Manhattan Punch Line.


It was revived in 1986, and went to Broadway in 2014, starring Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Stockard Channing and F. Murray Abraham. And since the more things change in this business, the more they stay the same, McNally’s revamped formula still works just fine in Newport Theatre Arts Center’s snappy production, whose run is set to end on June 19th.


Director Bob Fetes presides over the well-upholstered production, currently on stage at NTAC’s intimate theater atop the hill on Cliff Drive in Newport Beach, on a set also produced by Mr. Fetes and former Attic impresario, Jim Huffman. The action takes place in the creamy boudoir of dilettante Julia Budder (Yvonne Robertson; “The Octette Bridge Club”), a clueless neophyte who has stepped out from the investor herd to be lead producer on “The Golden Egg,” a new work by eternally promising American dramatist Peter Austin (Austin James Duffis; “Silent Sky”).



Basically, this two-and-a-half hour pasquinade set in Julia's Manhattan townhouse as she and her guests await the opening-night reviews of a new play is not only a razor-toothed parody of that most insular showbiz species, Broadway theater folk, but it’s also an affectionate billet-doux to them.


What keeps it most entertaining is McNally’s equal-opportunity ribbing of everyone involved — playwrights, producers, actors, directors, theater landlords, stagehands, etc. That favorite punching bag, the critic, takes a beating; even doddery matinee audiences with their faulty listening devices (“What did she say?”) get an irreverent jab. Just the sheer volume of jokes being fired off ensures that anyone even vaguely familiar with Broadway lore will be laughing.


Big names drop like hailstones as this raucous “to the nines” opening-night party rages downstairs. The most constant presence is James Wicker (Bill Peters; “Laughter on the 23rd Floor”), a talented character actor who abandoned the stage for a network TV series that just wrapped its ninth season. But its future is in doubt; cue nervous calls to his agent on the West Coast. Having turned down the male lead that his old friend Peter wrote for him, James has flown in for the opening, rubbing his hands with acerbic glee, anxiously awaiting whether or not the play will be a dud.



Also on hand to wait out the seemingly inevitable death knell of the New York press review with a modicum of self-deluding optimism is lead actress Virginia Noyes (Della Lisi Kerr; “A Christmas Carol”). That pill-popping, coke-snorting Hollywood refugee is looking for career rehab with a return to the stage following an unfortunate scandal.


Then there’s the wunderkind Brit director du jour, Frank Finger (Alex Piper; “Murder on the Orient Express”), a kleptomaniac glam-rock dandy who claims to crave the unfamiliar sting of failure. There’s also an acidulated critic with an agenda, Ira “The Eviscerator” Drew (Gary Douglas; “Death of a Salesman”), and Gus P. Head (Lee Samuel Tanng; “A Midsummer Night’s Gay Dream”), the starry-eyed coat-check boy, fresh off the bus and eager to be discovered.


So, while the party is going on downstairs, the principals are jumping out of their skins from stress, and McNally’s script captures that near-death experience with a barrage of the anxiety-ridden jokes Broadway wags crack to keep the dark away. The stakes are certainly high for the playwright, Peter Austin (Mr. Duffis), whose professional career and livelihood are on the line. Peter is one of those eternally stagestruck naïfs who can’t quite believe their luck to work in the most wonderful profession in the world.


The most conflicted person in the room is Mr. Peters’ James Wicker, the scribe’s once-best friend and collaborator, a TV sitcom star who turned down the male lead in Peter’s play and now wonders if he’s going to regret that decision. For the sake of their old friendship, James would kinda-sorta like the play to be a hit.


But far better it should be a flop, so he wouldn’t have to kick himself for turning it down — especially if ABC cancels his show. Or if, God forbid, the actor in the role he turned down (who has “all of my mannerisms and none of my warmth”) should be up for a Tony. Bill Peters has astute comic timing in the role, and it really is a joy to watch as he savors every drop of McNally’s venomous humor.


Meanwhile, ambling in and out of this posh anteroom of pretense, Ms. Robertson continues to spoon more sugar into her satirical perf of Julia, who’s by now sunk a fortune into the show so she can be its sole producer, a “real” producer who “gives notes” and stands alone on stage to pick up her Tony Award.


Ms. Kerr comes out with guns blazing as Virginia Noyes, the has-been star, pharmaceutical expert and notorious insurance liability who has to perform in a court-directed ankle monitor and check in every couple of hours with her parole officer. Virginia is so wicked, she comes right out with the “c” word — or, as that dear nitwit, Julia, puts it: “the ‘k’ word.” Della Lisi Kerr appears to be in heaven in this bad-girl role.


Anxiety-ridden Alex Piper is over the top as British director Frank Finger, a kleptomaniac glam-rock dandy who is so unsettled by all the mindless praise for his inane work that he’s actually hoping for bad notices, and he certainly looks eccentric in his cheeky Sartorial tux.


All the cast members fulfill their raisons d'être, which is to sling a whole lot of mud in the nicest possible way. At the heart of the humor is the sublime narcissism of the professional players and their honest conviction that nothing matters except the theater. Certainly not those real-life horrors reported on the television news shows that James impatiently cuts off while waiting for Roma Torres’ all-important TV review from NY1. It all seems quite preposterous, yet much of this dramedy has no doubt been relived countless times in real-life scenarios.


IT'S ONLY A PLAY, Written by Terrence McNally, Presented by Newport Theatre Arts Center, May 27-June 19. Director BOB FETES; Scenic Design BOB FETES & JAMES HUFFMAN; Costumes TOM PHILLIPS & LARRY WATTS; Sound/Lighting Design JOSH SERRANO; Stage Manager DELILAH DE LA ROSA.


WITH: LEE SAMUEL TANNG; BILL PETERS; DELLA LISI KERR; ALEX PIPER; YVONNE ROBERTSON; GARY DOUGLAS; AUSTIN JAMES DUFFIS; CARLA NARAGON.


For tickets and further information, visit: https://ntaconline.com/


Chris Daniels

Arts & Entertainment Reviewer

The Show Report

www.theshowreport.org