Encore Michigan

It may be ‘Only A Play,’ but it’s a hoot at Farmers Alley

Review March 12, 2018 Bridgette Redman

KALAMAZOO,Mich.–Is there anything quite like the giddy excitement of opening night? For those who have tread the boards or been a part of the artistic, producing and technical staff, they can tell you opening night is something special.

It’s that something special that It’s Only a Play by Terrence McNally, currently running in Kalamazoo’s Farmer’s Alley Theatre tries to capture. But in this play, it’s not just an ordinary opening night, it’s an opening night on Broadway and the inner circle—plus a few add-ons—are eagerly awaiting the reviews from the major news sources so they can determine whether they will continue to play on.

The play opens with an eager coat check attendant who just arrived in Manhattan, Gus P. Head, played by a very talented and enthusiastic Jono Mammel. He brings a fresh excitement to the part, mastering the role’s subtext of innocence, enthusiasm, optimism and hope. Mammel has fantastic facial expressions and is especially entertaining when he is listening and trying to soak up the instructions of the others on stage.

We then meet James Wicker, played valiantly by Vince Kracht, who deserves a medal of valor for his opening night performances. After inhaling a cracker and trying desperately to carry on with his monologue while alone on stage, the director, David Alpert, called a hold on the show ten to 15 minutes into the show and sent the audience into the lobby so Kracht could recover. They then backed up the show and carried on.

Kracht, who had at first done his best to cover and carry out the mishap in character, continued to do a fine job, not letting the incident throw him. Wicker is the playwright’s best friend, who flew in from Hollywood where he was currently in the ninth season of a television series. He is the first one to let us know the play may not be as wonderful as those involved seem to think that it is. He alternates between bitchy and supportive, but is always hilarious and perfect with his comic timing.

Tara Nulty as Virginia Noyes, the doped-up leading lady, comes screaming onto the stage and she is consistently over the top, a diva among divas. She doesn’t hesitate to make big choices to ensure that Virginia sparkles in an unforgettable manner.

When Dwight L. Trice, Jr. takes the stage as the brilliant, much lauded British director Frank Finger, the audience roars with laughter. He’s every horrid artistic stereotype. He is the sensitive genius who commands the stage, commands attention. He’s also a kleptomaniac who expects everyone to dance attendance on him and then is disappointed when they do. Trice does an amazing job with this role, especially in his reaction to one particular critic’s review.

Kate Thomsen is the new producer, Julia Budder, in whose house all of the play takes place. Thomsen is an enthusiastic patron of the arts, one for whom the money matters little—it is the involvement she seeks, the desire to be associated with something that is real art with people she likes. Julia is constantly upbeat, even if she is a bit naïve. Thomsen makes her highly likeable—the perfect producer who is eager to support her artistic staff and cares more about the product than the bottom line.

Michael Scheidt gets to play the villain, Ira Drew—for when it comes to stage and screen, it is one story in a century that ever portrays critics as anything but villains. He is a particularly nasty critic, one even other critics find repugnant for how mean he gets in his reviews. He worms his way into the inner circle to push a play that he wants Julia to read. Scheidt masters both the sneering and the longing to be a part of the theater family, something those on the inside have no desire to let him in on.

Finally, Aral Gribble, a delightful comic actor, makes his appearance as the playwright, Peter Austin, an idealistic young artist who is convinced he can turn the tide of commercial overly British Broadway and bring back the heyday of American theater. He spends a lot of time monologuing, but he is at his best when he is in quick dialog with other actors.

There is a lot to love about It’s Only a Play. McNally doesn’t hold back any punches when making fun of theater, though it is always with a loving, sympathetic hand. He clearly loves those who devote their lives to bringing plays to life. He fills the play with modern references and some of the funniest moments are when Gus comes in with different coats telling us who they are from—the cast of Hamilton, Lady Gaga, the Lion King cast, etc.

Director Alpert also gets credit not just for his excellent staging on the thrust stage of Farmer’s Alley’s downtown stage, but for encouraging all of his actors to go big with their choices and to keeping the play moving at a quick pace.

It’s also a show in which all of the technical aspects fit so well they almost aren’t noticeable. Everyone is dressed to the nines as appropriate for a fancy after-party, costumes courtesy of Lissa Hartridge and Sarah Maurer. George Eric Perry’s set design provides a rich-looking room that is spacious enough for all of the hijinks that must take place. Savannah Draper provides a variety of props from food and drink to a variety of things for the kleptomaniac director to steal.

Overall, it’s a highly entertaining evening and a great ride. It takes the audience backstage on an opening night and celebrates all the hopes and dreams of those involved in the theater, while showing how easy it is for them to be dashed. McNally’s language is smart and witty and all of the actors are committed to making their roles both funny and endearing.

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