Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The premise is fairly simple. As one character says, it's "the party of the year for the play of the century." While the wild opening night party plays out downstairs at the house of the play's first-time Broadway producer, upstairs the show's director, playwright, producer, and leading lady are joined by the playwright's best friend, a reviled critic, and a young man hired to check the party guests' coats as they anxiously wait for the reviews of their production, The Golden Egg. With each character having much to gain or lose from the outcome of the reviews, nerves are raw and emotions are high.
For the most part, McNally's characters are funny and interesting individuals that are fairly fleshed out and three dimensional, though they are also almost all narcissists who truly only care about themselves. McNally reworked this play from his earlier, and not exactly successful, 1978 comedy Broadway, Broadway. By adding in additional catty digs and earnest praise of celebrities both large and small, an interesting connection is formed with the celebrity-focused world we live in today as well as an intriguing peek into the hilarious theatrical happenings behind the footlights.
Director Matthew Wiener has assembled a cast of gifted comedians who get some big laughs from McNally's funny script, though not every joke lands and a few aren't delivered as successfully as they could be. Chalk that up partly to the unfamiliarity of some of the names that are dropped that are very specific to New York and Broadway as well as the somewhat uneven tone and direction the play goes in the second half of the second act which pads out the play and shortchanges some of the humor of the show.
While the show is mainly an ensemble piece, the character of James Wicker is more prominently featured throughout. Rusty Ferracane provides a wide range of well-delivered emotions as Wicker, the best friend and former star of the playwright's first play. Wicker is somewhat bitter and now lives in L.A. and stars in a long running TV series that is on the verge of being cancelled, and he turned down the lead role in The Golden Egg. Ferracane is both jaded and snarky as Wicker but also infuses him with moments of joy and heartfelt honesty and also painstaking regret. Debra K. Stevens is a riot as the aging, drug-addicted, Hollywood has-been who came crawling back to Broadway to star in the play, even though she has a court-ordered bracelet around her ankle that goes off at inappropriate times since she's still on parole. Stevens instills a perfect sense of manic craziness to Virginia, yet, from her well-shaded portrayal, we also witness Virginia's deep sense of vulnerability.
Ashley Stults does well as Julia Budder, the ditzy yet endearing and always positive newbie producer who is prone to misquote famous sayings, such as when she quotes Irving Berlin, saying that he "said it best: 'There's no business like the one we're in!'" As the play's author Peter Austin, Pasha Yamotahari has the right combination of anxiousness and charm for this slightly droll man who knows the stakes are high and that bad reviews could be the end of his professional career. Yamotahari is a talented comic and doesn't overplay or go too broad as Frank, which works perfectly. When Peter gets everyone around him to kneel down as he hilariously recites "the playwriter's prayer," Yamotahari is in his comical element. Toby Yatso, Phoenix Theatre's always humorous and reliable comedian, is very funny as Frank Finger, the overpraised kleptomaniac director who is the critics' darling yet is so annoyed by the constant praise that he's praying he'll finally get a bad review. As Ira Drew, the critic everyone loves to hate, D. Scott Withers is quite good, though the actor's profound sense of warmth that he brings to every part I've seen him play is just slightly at odds with the negative stereotypes associated with Drew.
And admirably holding his own amongst this cream of Valley talent is Tony Latham as Gus, the starstruck boy who is new in town and was hired as the coat check for the party. Latham's innocent, "aw shucks!" expressions and sunny personality work beautifully for this young naive man who finds himself constantly pulled into the action, since every one of the characters loves to talk about themselves and their problems. Gus is more than happy to listen, especially since he hopes one of them will see his acting abilities and hire him.
Creative elements, as usual with Phoenix Theatre, are sublime. Douglas Clarke's scenic design embodies a stunning, expensive, and meticulously furnished room in a Manhattan home. Tyler Welden's property designs tastefully fill every shelf, table and wall with classy elements. The combination of Connie Furr Soloman's exquisite costumes and the beautiful hair and make-up from Terre Steed create perfect designs for each character that are humorous without being unrealistic.
Just about everyone has known the feelings and range of emotions you experience when waiting on news that could make or break you and McNally does a good job in portraying that stress-induced, nerve-wracking environment. Though the play has a few bumps and inconsistencies, with a talented cast, Phoenix Theatre's production of It's Only a Play manages to be a charming love letter to the theatre and anyone who loves it.
Phoenix Theatre's production of It's Only a Play, through February 11th, 2018, with performances at the Phoenix Theatre at 100 E. McDowell Road in Phoenix AZ. Tickets can be purchased at phoenixtheatre.com or by calling 602-254-2151.
Director: Matthew Wiener
Cast: (in alphabetical order)
*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors & stage managers in the U.S.