The adage "write what you know" has given the world more books about books, films about films, and plays about plays than we could possibly need to illuminate the struggles of the creative process and the vagaries of show business. But after an exhilarating perusal of Terrence McNally’s It’s Only a Play, this overstuffed archive of insiders' love letters and poison-pen polemics suddenly seems incomplete.
The play, which received a Tony nomination last year and makes its regional premiere at GableStage this weekend, energizes the staid theater-about-theater tradition with a relentless and sophisticated barrage of one-liners, name-drops,
In the introduction to his script, McNally defines characters with archetypal brevity — “the playwright,” “the producer,” “the director,” “the critic,” “the star” — all of them converging in the second-story bedroom of producer Julia Budder’s (Amy McKenna) townhouse. Playwright Peter Austin’s (Antonio Amadeo) latest work has just enjoyed its Broadway premiere, and while an afterparty brimming with showbiz glitterati rages downstairs, the principal creatives unspool insecurities upstairs, nervously awaiting the first reviews of Peter’s show. For Peter’s longtime friend James Wicker (Michael McKeever), who declined a role in the play because of obligations on a soon-to-be-canceled TV series, the night is more bitter than sweet.
As the room gradually populates and depopulates, its inhabitants supply a bottomless trove of quotable insights and insults, most of them directed squarely at the state of the theater today: "The theater has become the Statue of Liberty for movie actors: Give us your tired, your poor, your washed-up, your strung-out"; “[Liza Minnelli] is a cunt. I mean that in the best possible sense of the word”; and "[Critics] are all idiots. It’s a job requirement — along with dandruff and personal hygiene issues.”
“This is really an exquisitely written comedy about a subject the author knows about better than anybody I know,” says Adler, who produced McNally’s Mothers and Sons in 2014. “Everything in this play, the wildly funny stuff, is absolutely rooted in reality.”
That overarching sense of truth will, the cast suspects, transcend the show’s collection of witticisms, appealing to spectators who might not get every zinger about Tommy Tune or Bernadette Peters.
“It’s definitely an insider’s show as far as theater’s concerned, but the beauty of it is that for people who aren’t going to get the many theater references, it does show a group of people who absolutely love this art form that we’re in,” Amadeo says. “I think it’ll be clear to the audience, even the ones who don’t know theater, just how beautiful it is, and how much of a draw we have to it, and how tortured we are by that draw.”
When it comes to researching their roles, of course, the cast has a unique advantage—as theater professionals, they’ve lived these lives for years. But that isn’t an excuse for complacency.
“Because [James Wicker] is so comfortable, you don’t want to fall into the role that it’s easy, because there’s nothing easy about comedy,” McKeever says. “There’s so much precision in landing a joke just the right way, or making sure the beat isn’t held a half-second too long, or isn’t cut too short.”
“Our goal is to make it look easy, to make it look like we’re not sweating or working hard,” adds Adler. “I’ve never had more fun than I’m having watching the rehearsals.”
It’s Only a Play
Runs January 23 to February 21 at GableStage, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables. Tickets cost $57-$60. Call 305-445-1119 or visit gablestage.org.
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