Opening-night jitters behind the scenes

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Wednesday March 14, 2018
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Chris Morrell, left, is a playwright at an opening-night desperately awaiting the reviews, as P.A. Cooley and Geoffrey Colton look on in "It's Only a Play" at New Conservatory Theatre Center. Photo: Lois Tema
Chris Morrell, left, is a playwright at an opening-night desperately awaiting the reviews, as P.A. Cooley and Geoffrey Colton look on in "It's Only a Play" at New Conservatory Theatre Center. Photo: Lois Tema

There's a marvelous scene in the second act of Terrence McNally's "It's Only a Play" in which a self-involved wunderkind director has a meltdown, reverting to childhood as he reenacts a scene between his innocently sensitive self and his gruff father over the boy's interest in theater. "But I want to be Peter Pan," he pleads, which leads to the director on the floor giving himself a spanking as his colleagues watch aghast. Would that McNally had shown more of that invention in his comedy, which far too often goes for easy laughs with dropped names that have little comic resonance beyond the fact that they are recognizable.

"Why is James Franco always sexting me?" asks a member of an opening night party. "James Franco sexts everyone," comes the reply, even though James Franco has nothing to do with anything that has come before or will come later, and the reference will no doubt be changed when its shelf life expires (if it hasn't already). Invocations of the Kardashians, Lady Gaga, Chris Christie, and many, many others fall into similar categories.

In fact, McNally already nipped and tucked his play for its all-star 2014 Broadway revival, as the playwright updated the irrelevant references to unseen characters since its 1982 New York premiere. Arlene Francis is now Kelly Ripa. Charles Nelson Reilly morphed into Harvey Fierstein. Shirley MacLaine is Rosie O'Donnell. And McNally seems to have updated a few other names since 2014 for the version now at New Conservatory Theatre Center. "Hamilton," which didn't open on Broadway until 2015, now gets a shout-out.

But among the evanescent laughs that the deluge of trending names can offer can be found the bones of a solid play built on more durable cliches about life in the theater. Director Arturo Catricala works with both the transient and more enduring aspects of the play to create a handsome production at NCTC filled with entertaining performances and housed in Kuo-Hao Lo's busily stylish replica of the master bedroom atop a luxe Manhattan townhouse.

It's the inner sanctum for the producer, director, playwright, star, and a few interlopers who have escaped the opening-night party below to await the reviews. Or perhaps that should be review, singular, for it is the arrival of the notice from The New York Times that provides the first-act cliffhanger and the second-act conflagration of despair, recriminations, and paeans to theater's noble mission even as failure crashes the party.

This is an ensemble cast, but it does have a ringleader of sorts. P.A. Cooley plays an actor who has decamped to a lucrative Hollywood career in television, and is back for the opening of his longtime friend's play. Cooley expertly conveys a controlled mania, at times the sensible character, albeit with a bitchy backhand and an easily aggrieved ego. When he hears a snatch of television news suggesting something has happened to Barbra Streisand, his hyperventilating concern is both funny and real.

Chris Morrell brings nuance to the sincere-desperate playwright whose career is on the line, Melissa Smith makes believable the bubble-headed sincerity of the neophyte producer, and Michaela Greeley has a wonderful melodramatic flair as the scandal-ridden actress trying for a comeback. There's more good work from Kevin Singer as the pretentious director, especially in his scene of self-flagellation, Geoffrey Colton as a vicious theater critic who crashes the party, and Nicholas Decker as a starry-eyed gofer who is angling to perform "Defying Gravity" for the assembled luminaries.

There probably never will be a definitive version of "It's Only a Play," with McNally or his estate pulling out names and installing others as the celebrity mill grinds on. But the best moments don't come from the name-dropping but from the glimmers of heart it displays about that business we call show.

"It's Only a Play" will run through April 1 at New Conservatory Theatre Center. Tickets are $25-$50. Call (415) 861-8972 or go to nctcsf.org.