CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Successful comedies about the theater, whether they take place backstage or in a producer's lofty Manhattan mansion, give us a pleasurable, comical and even perhaps educational look into an area of theater that those of us in the field rarely, if ever, get even a peek.
These plays manage this while making non-theater aficianados feel as though they're party of the theatrical community -- not a stranger who doesn't understand the jargon, rituals and jokes familiar to only the most devoted, obssessed "in the loop" fans.
Playwright Terrence McNally's zany, wacky, immensly entertaining comedy "It's Only a Play," equal parts biting satire and affectionate love letter to the theater, manages to accomplish all of the above. It does so while, without sounding preachy, offering a universal message about putting things into perspective.
But make no mistake; "It's Only A Play" is hardly a message-driven, deep, meaty play with much semblance of a plot. It's a laughest that tickles the funny bone with its sardonic humor, exaggerations, colorful if not exactly well drawn characters and risque, even gasp inducing dialogue.
Before the start of a recent performance of the several-times revised play, GableStage's producing artistic director Joseph Adler, who's directing the production, announced McNally himself will attend a future performance (he didn't say which one).
I'm happy to opine that McNally, a multi-Tony Award winner and the winner/nominee of numerous other honors, will fall in love with GableStage's hilarious, convincing, vivacious production.
In "It's Only A Play," McNally displays a keen ear and eye for the big, grand gesutres, vocal inflections and generally eccentric ways of theater folk.
"It's Only A Play" is based on McNally's experiences working in the Broadway theater of the 1980s. The playwright has written that it's "probably the closest thing I will ever write to a documentary. Because it's a comedy, people think I am exxagerating the truth. I am not. It is a true play. The truth as I know it."
"Write what you know" is advice frequently offered to aspiring writers. It's safe to say that with his experience, McNally, a versatile playwright equally skilled with his compassionate writing in pathos-filled scenes and in finding humor in life's situations, knows the theater community like his A-B-Cs.
The play takes place in the opulent Manhattan townhouse of producer Julia Budder (Amy McKenna), where an opening night party is in progress for the opening of fledgling playwright Peter Austin's new play.
Downstairs, the scene is one of revelry. Upstairs, the tension is palpable as Austin and others involved with his play await the reviews. Mix those white knuckles with the rediculous, and you feel as though watching "It's Only A Play" is a theatrical celebration in itself.
McNally, who obviously has a great fondness for live theater, isn't beyond biting satirism with teeth sharper than the supposedly vicious dog in Budder's bathroom.
In one scene, one of the characters wants to watch the reviews so badly that he turns off in mid-sentence a breaking television news report of a potential dire situation -- one that can turn into a tragedy. GableStage's mounting features a revised version of the play, in which McNally left out a news report of a plane crash..which would make the scene all the more pitbull-toothed sharp. The subtext: A plane crash killing who knows how many? Who cares, let's hear the review of a TV critic with practically no knoweldge of theater.
In another scene, the pitbulls (excuse me, the characaters who are gentlemen and ladies of the theater) rush to grab the New York Times review as though the paper's rationed pieces of bread and they haven't eaten in months.
Of course, there are plenty theater-insider jokes that are clear love letters to the theater.
In this updated version of "It's Only A Play," a budding actor who's serving as the "help" for the party, announces "the cast of 'Hamilton's' here." He is, of course, referring to that rap musical phenomenon that's invaded Broadway like no other show about our country's forefathers -- a show that, to many, must seem as impossible a ticket as an invitation to enter the White House, unannounced, and proceed directly to the room where the First Family's sleeping.
"They got a better offer," the aspiring actor says soon after, referring to "Hamilton's" cast. "They're going to the White House."
There are ample references to and jokes targeting modern-day shows and stars in this update version of the play, which played to critical acclaim on Broadway in 2014 for 274 performances. The people mentioned are those such as "Harry Potter" star Daniel Radcliffe and well-known actors Harvey Fierstein and Nathan Lane, known for playing (and in Fierstein's case, writing) gay and effeminate characters.
Other modern stars mentoined include singer Lady Gaga, television host Ellen DeGeneres and musical theater composer extraordinaire Stephen Sondheim. One not-so-modern star, actress Julie Andrews, is also mentoined by vitriolic critic Ira Drew (Christopher Chisholm), who notes he had to start carrying a gun after writing a less than favorable review of Andrews.
Theater critics hardly get off easily in this play. Drew gets beaten up and splattered with food by the revelers partying downstairs. A character notes that Drew once wrote that the American theater would be in a better state if Austin's parents had smothered him in his crib.
Ben Brantley, chief theater critic for The New York Times, is called some, let's just say colorful words you wouldn't want your young child to hear.
Drew's outward gentlemanly manner belies the ferocity of his pen. He's played by Chritopher Chisholm, whose Drew bows to the laides but whose wide-eyed expression suggests a villian in the vein of Captain Hook.
One person who can't stand Drew is the ambitious, narcissistic star Virginia Noyes (Lourelene Snedeker, touching her hair gently to ensure she has just the right 'do, looking in the mirror and conveying glamour and childish disappointment with equal skill.
While some may consider this diva a complaining, rich bitch, one can't say the same about McKenna's Budder, who, while ambitious, is someone with feelings, vulnerabilities and, speaking in a soothing, compassionate voice, as if to a small child who hurt himself, loves that mysterious pooch. McKenna's Budder is a compassionate boss, one who won't hesitate to offer a shoulder for an actor on which to cry.
While this play's a satire and the characters are overly dramatic, Wesley Slade's long-haired British producer overdoes his wackiness. It's almost as though the actor's trying to show off the character's craziness. It looks more like mugging than inhabiting the role and letting the laughs develop organically.
As Austin, Antonion Amadeo is much more understated -- and effective -- in his portrayal. This playwright betrays a quiet determination and a calm demeanor that suggests one or more bad reviews of one play won't defeate this determined, strong-willed young man.
Austin's written his play with television actor James Wicker in mind, but the fictional TV actor has turned down the role. Wicker's played by Michael McKeever as a charming man, but also shows us his disappointment and hope that his friend's play succeeds.
Austin may be young, but he isn't as green as aspiring as the party's "help," Gus P. Head, an aspiring actor played as a wide-eyed, boyish, naive, extremely eager Joe Ferrarelli. He's the type of person you want to pat on the shoulder, pinch his cheek and say "Welcome to the cutthroat world of the theater kid!"
The actors' performances are multi-faceted and they display deft comic timing, but are too often upstaged by Slad as director Finger.
Adler, the real-life director, creates some striking stage pictures and pays attention to detail.
Adler's part of a first-rate technical team that includes Ellis Tillman, whose elaborate costumes perfectly befit the occassion.
Kudos must also go out to scenic designer Lyle Baskin, whose lush, spacious depiction of the townhouse leaves no doubt we're seeing a Manhattan townhouse that costs a fortune.
Some plays require an explanation about the title's origin. The reason for calling this work "It's Only a Play" is so obvious, nary a mention's necessary. Still, in an unnecessary line, a character notes a close family member once told him to always remember "It's only a play." There's an even more unnecessary line in a previous edition, in which a cab driver says something like "What's wrong with these people; it's only a play!" Thankfully, that line's been eliminated. It talks down to the audience, spoonfeeding them the obvious reason for the title.
If you're a theater fan, you'll laugh until it hurts and nod your head in recognition. If you're not that into theater, you still won't feel like a stranger within this strange community we call show business.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: "It's Only a Play"
WHEN: Through Feb. 23, with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday as well as 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday.
WHERE: 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables, on the east side of the Biltmore Hotel.
HOW MUCH: $45 for 8 p.m. performances Thursday and Friday, $60 for 8 p.m. Saturday performances, $55 for 2 p.m. Sunday performances and $45 for 7 p.m. Sunday performances. For tickets, call (305) 445-1119.