The cast mispronounces and otherwise mangles their way through an appalling number of names, titles, and other details contained in McNally’s knowing, but basically superficial, text.
Terrence McNally is, alongside John Guare, just about the most prolific of the current crop of Irish-American playwrights. However, only twice in a career which, to date, has stretched across roughly three decades, has he written about the world in which he lives and works, namely the theater.
In 1985, there was “It’s Only a Play,” produced by Manhattan Theater Club, and then, in a somewhat revised version, revived in 1992 by the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, after which it more or less vanished from sight.
Last week, McNally’s new play, “Dedication,” which bears the subtitle “The Stuff of Dreams,” played its first preview performance in a Primary Stages production at the new theater complex, 59E59, which, obviously, takes its name from its address.
“Dedication,” which deals with the efforts of a smalltime theater company to stay afloat despite domestic and monetary difficulties, was produced a Massachusetts’ Williamstown Theater Festival last summer, and will open officially in New York on August 18, with a cast headed by Nathan Lane, Marian Seldes, and a supporting company substantially different from the one which did the play a year ago at what is probably New England’s most famous summer playhouse.
Meanwhile, in an odd coincidence, the seldom-revived “It’s Only a Play,” is on hand again, as part of the sixth annual Midtown International Theatre Festival, running through this Sunday.
Each year, the festival, mainly made up of previously unproduced material ranging from staged readings and solo performances to more or less fully produced musicals, comedies and dramas, revives an restages one play from the theater’s relatively recent past.
Last year, it was Frank D. Gilroy’s surprisingly durable Pulitzer Prize winner from 1964, “The Subject Was Roses,” and this time it’s McNally’s farce about the foibles of stage folk.
“It’s Only a Play” may or may not take its title from an incident involving actress Ingrid Bergman and director Alfred Hitchcock, a moment which supposedly took place when the pair were on location in Australia.
The film in question, “Under Capricorn,” a stuffy period piece made in 1949, proved to be one of Hitchcock’s few outright disasters, and Bergman, reportedly, had fussed about the script and the overall situation throughout the entire production period.
At one point, when the actress approached Hitchcock with yet another complaint, the director reportedly turned to his star and said “Ingrid, it’s only a movie.”
There’s at least a fair chance that playwright McNally was aware of the anecdote and adapted it for the title of his 1985 effort, which deals with an opening night party given at the Upper East Side townhouse belonging to socialite Julia Budder, the shaky production’s principal backer.
Taking place in an upstairs bedroom of the mansion while the party itself is going on the floor below, the room serves as a repository for the coats belonging to the guests, and as a temporary refuge for individuals eager to flee the celebration, if only for a few solitary moments.
The play, predictably enough, contains an overwhelming amount of shameless name-dropping and referencing of theatrical trivia of the days when the play was written, and, supposedly, a few seasons later, when it was updated, in advance of the California staging.
The most surprising aspect of the rather overheated revival at the Midtown Festival is how dated and unfamiliar so many of the once-topical names, plays and other references have become in the course of the passage of only a couple of decades.
Fame is, of course, notoriously fleet of foot, which is very probably the single most emphatic impression the current revival of McNally’s dated play is likely to make on its audiences.
Making matters worse is the fact that producer-director John Capo, who stepped into a major role late in the game, when the actor he’d cast landed a role in a film and departed, has allowed his cast to mispronounce and otherwise mangle an appalling number of the names, titles, and other details contained in McNally’s knowing but basically superficial text.
Those linguistic gaffes, of course, or at least some of them will, in all probability, be corrected as Capo’s bare bones production of “It’s Only a Play” moves toward its final performances. As things stand, however, hearing the mistakes mainly serves as a sad reminder of precisely how easy it is to be quickly and thoroughly erased from memory.
To cite just one example, there is a moment when the jittery would-be actor hired by Mrs. Budder to handle the cloakroom chores sees an overly lengthy garment and exclaims “Oh, Tommy Tune must be here!”
The line got one of the original production’s biggest responses. Now, the joke is received in silence, not inspiring as much as a titter from the audience. Is the lanky Texas-born actor and director already so thoroughly part of the past, and unknown to contemporary theatergoers? The answer provided by Capo’s production, sadly, would appear to be in the affirmative.
The eight-actor cast of the Midtown Festival’s production, which at times resembles more closely an act of exhumation than of play revival, has been encouraged or at least allowed, to mug, overact outrageously and do considerable scenery-chewing, no mean feat in a hardscrabble production done with almost no set at all.
“It’s Only a Play,” even in McNally’s revised version, which text the festival’s staging appears to have utilized, considering the presence in the program of a note claiming that the play takes place in “the winter of 1992,” still plays like a first draft in need of further attention.
The play’s characters are more or less what might be expected, considering its subject matter. Michael Baldwin is Gus head, the tyro actor serving as coat check boy. John Squire is James Wicker, a leading man becoming more and more clearly aware that his star days are on the wane. Sheila Mart is suitably shrill as desperate character actress Virginia Noyes, while the stately, graceful Cynthia Henderson seems uncomfortable as hostess Budder.
Charles Marti is suitably cloddish as the detested theater critic, Ira Drew, who should have known better than to show up at a bad play’s opening night party.
Three of the actors manage to save themselves, to one degree or another, despite what’s going on around them. Producer-director Capo, pressed into service as the moody directorial wunderkind, Frank Finger, is convincingly sullen and self-loathing. Betty Hudson as the late-arriving cab driver, Emma Bovary, brings a thuggish freshness to the scenes in which she appears, perhaps reminding older patrons of the lusty cabbie the late Nancy Walker played in “On the Town.”
Probably the production’s most convincing performance is that of Frederick Hamilton, cast as the young playwright, Peter Austin, whose professional future more or less depends on the evening’s outcome. His nervousness, to be sure, comes with his situation.
In addition, Hamilton’s witty bio refers to “extensive experience as a dancing banana.”
Who could ask for anything more?