The opening weekend Sunday-matinee performance of It’s Only a Play offered a handful of laughs and a whole lot of celebrity name-dropping to patrons of Raleigh, NC’s beloved Theatre in the Park. While it is apparent that the cast, director, and production team at TIP are of the utmost talent and professionalism, playwright Terrence McNally’s clichéd comedy does not offer the local theater institution an opportunity to truly showcase its abilities.
Much of the writing felt forced, with many of the jokes either overdone or reaching; and most of the comedy was performed to a stoic audience. There were, however, several standout moments of the play that were either endearing, hilarious, or a strange mix of both, and during which the cast of seven truly shined onstage and connected with its audience.
As audience members took their seats, they were greeted by the elegant and ornate bedroom of Julia Budder’s New York City townhome, artfully and thoughtfully designed by Nathaniel Conti. The set immediately came to life upon the opening scene’s entrance of Gus P. Head, played by Justin Brent Johnson, whose portrayal of the moony-eyed, maybe slightly irritating, young show-biz hopeful remained a consistent point of truthful humor.
Gus’ intermittent appearances with overflowing armfuls of party guests’ coats served as one of the play’s more subtle — and thereby more successful — points of comedy, with guests roaring over the absurdly tiny jacket belonging to Daniel Radcliffe and the bizarre puppy-inspired number of Lady Gaga’s.
James Wicker, the theater actor-turned-sitcom star played by Rob Jenkins, promptly joined Gus onstage; and his cleverly delivered phone conversation in the first act elicited many collective chuckles from patrons. Unfortunately, several of the first act’s moments felt and appeared somewhat stilted and inorganic; but as all seven cast members eventually appeared in the bedroom for some reason or another, the collective energy made for a strong reentrance in the second act.
The second act began with full-on bellylaughs from the audience, as playwright Peter Austin, played by Brian Westbrook, read aloud the highly anticipated New York Times review of his Broadway debut. Westbrook’s delivery of the rapidly worsening review was perfectly articulated down to every syllable and facial expression, which only became funnier when Peter handed off the review to James and then proceeded to roll on the floor out of sheer distress.
On the subject of rolling on the floor, this play contains more rolling or crawling on the floor and more emotional meltdowns than, perhaps, any other show in history. They were some of the more over-the-top moments of comedy that successfully clicked with the audience.
Tormented yet talented young director Frank Finger, played by Ira David Wood IV, seemingly never stopped slinking around the stage in some fashion or another, whether he was crawling beneath the couch or lazily spinning upside down in the desk chair. While his neurotic character’s multiple outbursts often seemed over-the-top, Wood’s use of the stage and its props was quirky, creative, and a constant source of amusement.
Ultimately, It’s Only a Play serves as a two-hour inside joke about the crises, egos, and excitement of the theater industry; but, like most inside jokes, it is far funnier if you are part of it rather than experiencing it from the outside. Perhaps, veteran thespians or theater academics may appreciate this play more than the typical ticketholder; however, for most theatergoing Raleighites, this production — due to no fault to the cast or the crew — leaves much to be desired.
SECOND OPINION: Aug. 11th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Alan R. Hall: https://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=9078; and July 29th Raleigh, NC News & Observer mini-preview by Roy C. Dicks: https://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/article215505405.html. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Aug. 12th Triangle Review review by Robert O’Connell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2018/08/terrence-mcnallys-its-only-a-play-is-much-more-than-a-play-its-a-triumph-for-tip/.)
Theatre In The Park presents IT’S ONLY A PLAY at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 16-18, 3 p.m. Aug. 19, 7:30 p.m. Aug. 24-25, and 3 p.m. Aug. 26 in the Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607.
TICKETS: $24 ($18 students, seniors 60+, and active-duty military personnel), except $16-per-person for groups of 10 or more.
INFORMATION: 919-831-6058. SHOW: https://www.theatreinthepark.com/whats-on/its-only-a-play.html and https://www.facebook.com/events/202035697312124/.
VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=04sijou0ZoE&feature=youtu.be.
NOTE: All shows are wheelchair/walker accessible, and large-print playbills are usually available.
It’s Only A Play: A Comedy (1982 Off-Off-Broadway, 1986 Off-Broadway, and 2014 Broadway comedy): http://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=1099 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/1829 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/its-only-a-play-497341 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It%27s_Only_a_Play (Wikipedia).
The Script: https://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Terrence McNally (playwright): http://www.terrencemcnally.com/ (official website), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/3116 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/terrence-mcnally-8828 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0573645/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terrence_McNally (Wikipedia).
Jesse R. Gephart (director): http://www.abouttheartists.com/artists/394495-jesse-gephart (About the Artists bio).
Sarah McQuillan is a government affairs professional based out of Raleigh, NC, and an alumna of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A lover of the performing and visual arts since childhood, she began writing theater reviews for the Daily Tar Heel in college and continues to keep this love alive writing for Triangle Arts and Entertainment. Sarah spends her free time experiencing new restaurants, playing the piano, learning new languages, and taking leisurely strolls with her elderly dog.