Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

It's Only a Play
New Conservatory Theatre Center
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's reviews of Vietgone, Transitions, Bamboozled and Jeanie's reviews of The Realistic Joneses and Dead Man's Cell Phone

Pictured: Geoffrey Colton, Melissa Keith,
Nicholas Decker, Michaela Greeley, Kevin Singer, and Chris Morrell

Photo by Lois Tema
The characters who populate Terrence McNally's It's Only a Play, currently running at San Francisco's New Conservatory Theatre Center, are caught up in a variety of love/hate relationships—with each other, and with the theatre itself. It's opening night of playwright Peter Austin's newest offering (and first Broadway production) and, while he, his producer, his director, the show's star, and his best friend (a successful TV actor) wait for the reviews, they snipe, fling barbs, talk trash behind each other's backs but lavish praise in face-to-face encounters, and generally behave like spoiled, entitled (but witty) children. The theatre itself, with all its disappointments, disasters, and occasional triumphs, gets its fair share of abuse and adulation, as well. Under Arturo Catricala's skilled direction, the result is a fantastically entertaining evening of theatre about theatre.

The action takes place in the Manhattan apartment of producer Julia Budder (Melissa Keith), which is decorated in perfectly horrific taste by Kuo-Hao Lo. While a star-studded party rages downstairs (Pacino! Obama! Oprah! The Pope!), Jimmy Wicker (a delightfully bitchy P.A. Cooley) has retreated to the master bedroom where young wannabe actor Gus (Nicholas Decker) is working as a coat-check boy to get some privacy so he can tell his West Coast friends how perfectly awful his best friend Peter's new play is. Over the course of the evening, as they wait for the all-important New York Times review to come in, Jimmy will be joined by enfant terrible British director Sir Frank Finger (Kevin Singer) who, fresh off 14 successes in a row in London, is oddly anxious for the American critics to tear him a new one. Like many artists, he believes himself a fraud and desperately wants a flop to prove him right.

The show's star, Virginia Noyes (Michaela Greeley), an Oscar-winning actress whose stint in rehab, while making her toxic to the movie business ("I couldn't even book an AA meeting in LA!"), doesn't stop her from running a small pharmacy out of her handbag. Once the second-rate critic Ira Drew (Geoffrey Colton) and playwright Austin (Chris Morrell) join the group hiding out in the bedroom, the sparks begin to fly. Everyone rags on Jimmy Wicker for leaving Broadway behind to do a mainstream sitcom for nine seasons. Oscar winner Noyes snips "I do a lot of self-destructive things, but I draw the line at television."

There's a lot going in It's Only a Play, but McNally seems to keep it all moving forward so we never get confused or bored. Despite the fact that the characters he has created are all too self-absorbed and egotistical to truly be likeable, once the second act hits—and the reviews start coming in—they throw their differences aside and unite in the shared misery of a life in the theatre.

Though everyone should be able to find something to love about It's Only a Play, if you're fanatical about the theatre, McNally has thrown one Easter egg after another into his text to delight you. When one reviewer lists Peter Austin among a group of successful but still up-and-coming playwrights, it's funny enough that the list is nearly 20 names long. But it's even funnier if you recognize every one of those names. As P.A. Cooley as Jimmy Wicker complains on the phone about the play's "tilted disc" set and near complete lack of furniture, he leans back in his chair and says (with a complete lack of self-referential irony), "Call me old-fashioned, but give me a comfortable chair and a phone for exposition."

The cast lap up their parts like kittens at cream. Cooley can shift from bitchy to sycophantic in the blink of an eye, and Greeley—as the drug-addled star whose best years are well in the rear view—has a tottering languor that is perfect for her role. Nicholas Decker brings a real fresh-faced innocence to star-struck lad Gus, and Kevin Singer garners some of the biggest laughs of the night with a hysterical re-enactment of the abuse (verbal and physical) he received as a child for wanting a career in the arts. But Melissa Keith nearly steals the show with her hysterical portrayal of the very rich but very dim producer.

It's Only a Play, through April 1, 2018, at New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco CA. Performances are Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:00pm. Tickets are $25-$50, and can be purchased at, or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.

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