Terrence McNally knows theater — as do the folks at Spotlight and Vintage Theatre — and his It’s Only a Play, which the two local companies are producing together, flays the skin off that lunatic, star-studded, crazily artificial yet deeply heartfelt profession. The action takes place in the penthouse suite of Julia Budder (a sweetly ignorant Anne Myers), a rich woman spending a lot of her husband’s money so that she can be the sole producer of a show called The Golden Egg and stand alone on stage to accept the play’s anticipated Tony award. Downstairs there’s a post-show party featuring just about every significant name you can think of, including Al Pacino, Rudy Giuliani and Rosie O’Donnell, who’s been spotted chatting with the Pope. Meanwhile, Julia and a handful of others wait for those all-important reviews.
There’s naive young Gus (a lithe and rather charming Seth Harris), carting coats around and running errands, trembling with excitement about his proximity to fame, and waiting for his turn in the limelight. James Wicker (Bernie Cardell), who stars in an up-until-now successful sitcom (though cancellation threatens), is a friend of the playwright, Peter Austin (Perry Lewis), who originally wanted James as his lead — but James turned him down because he thought the script was shit. Now James is torn between hoping his judgment was wrong for his friend’s sake and hoping for his own that it was spot-on and he hasn’t missed a chance for a Tony.
Pretentious British director Sir Frank Finger (Leroy Leonard, spikily funny, though not very British) is on hand, too, asserting that he’s tired of success and feels the need for a soul-cleansing flop. We also meet the temperamental, coke-addicted actress Virginia Noyes (Kelly Uhlenhopp), complete with ankle bracelet and instructions to check in with her parole officer every two hours. And finally, acerbic critic Ira Drew (Michael O’Shea, a big presence with a killer laugh) has somehow slipped in; his opinion carries some weight, but not nearly as much as the words everyone’s awaiting: those of the New York Times’s Ben Brantley.
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The Golden Egg might live up to its name, but this production succeeds for several reasons. For one, the script is delightfully vicious. McNally’s zingers hit home, and his language is uninhibited. Judging from audience laughter, I’m not the only person who’s tired of our culture’s ridiculous timidity about language: F-bomb, potty mouth — what are we, four years old?
For another, McNally thoroughly understands the world that he satirizes. He endured some rough times before winning a Pulitzer and four Tonys, and there’s a real feeling in his characters’ response to bad reviews. Theater people live out their work in the open, and their flaws and strengths are very publicly dissected; months of work can be upended by the words of a single writer. No wonder they’re thin-skinned! So along with all the satirical pokes (the Kardashians as Chekhov’s Three Sisters) and farcical goings-on, there’s real truth here. Playwright Austin has a profound, though ridiculously idealistic, view of theater, and actor Lewis gives him some genuinely touching moments. Austin’s right on the money, too, when he laments the British takeover of New York theater, along with the sloshing-with-sentimentality Disney-to-stage musicals. And, of course, deep in his cynical critic’s soul, Ira really wishes that he were part of the creative tribe he judges rather than a professional observer.
Although director Katie Mangett could have urged a bit more finesse here or there, the relish with which the entire cast leaps into their roles provides much of the evening’s pleasure. Virginia has absolutely no redeeming qualities; she’s a walking id, and her vanity is so huge that it threatens to obliterate everyone around her. Kelly Uhlenhopp’s performance in the role is equally huge — at times you can only wonder at her sheer audacity. For James, Bernie Cardell channels a hilarious mixture of Rowan Atkinson and Nathan Lane, who actually played the role on Broadway. And when, in an attempt to cheer up the crestfallen crew, young Gus leaps onto the bed and starts singing Wicked’s ghastly “Defying Gravity,” the moment encapsulates all the wonderful absurdity of that always-dying, never-quite-dead art form: theater.