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Terrence McNally’s ‘It’s Only A Play’ Opens Off-Broadway

January 13, 1986

NEW YORK (AP) _ Opening night festivities for producer Julia Budder’s new play, ″The Golden Egg,″ are not going well.

Her husband is mugged in the men’s room at Sardi’s. Their dog Torch has bitten Arlene Francis. And worst of all, the play is a turkey, ″a 35-pound Butterball,″ according to the playwright’s best friend, a fading television actor who turned down the starring role.

These catastrophes unfold in the first few minutes of ″It’s Only A Play,″ Terrence McNally’s maliciously funny diatribe about the desperate and demented business of producing a play on Broadway. The comedy arrived Sunday at off- Broadway’s Manhattan Theater Club and its healthy dose of vinegar is as invigorating as it is uproarious.

McNally, best known as the author of ″The Ritz″ and ″Bad Habits,″ is one of those playwrights who makes you smile even while he kicks you in the shins. In ″It’s Only A Play,″ no one is spared. Playwrights, actors, producers, press agents, even critics, are tweaked with great gusto.

McNally’s victims include a playwright who believes sincerely that ″You can write a serious play for Broadway and still have a place in the Hamptons.″ His other targets are the spacey female producer who considers what she’s doing really is art; a coke-sniffing leading lady trying to resurrect her career; a boy-wonder director who, after 14 hits in a row, longs for a flop; the playwright’s jealous best friend and an unscrupulous drama critic who, of course, has written a play.

The disasters build slowly in Act 1 as the reviews trickle into the opening night party held in the producer’s East Side townhouse. Interspersed are some witty, if caustic comments by McNally on real-life theater ranging from Lanford Wilson to Lauren Bacall and from Charles Nelson Reilly to Carol Channing. Everything explodes in the second half with the arrival of the early edition of the New York Times and its all-important theater review. It’s a review that hilariously decimates everyone in the room, even those not in the play.

Director John Tillinger, who does not let the fun stop, has command of an exceptional cast. James Coco, the insincere friend who wants the play to bomb, is an expert at projecting pure panic. Mark Blum superbly matches Coco’s frenzy as the overwrought playwright. Christine Baranski has the right amount of dotty benevolence as the producer, while David Garrison, Joanna Gleason, Paul Benedict, Jihmi Kennedy and Florence Stanley offer strong support in smaller roles.

John Lee Beatty has designed a wonderfully ostentatious townhouse bedroom where the action takes place and Rita Ryack’s costumes have the right amount of chic glitz.

″It’s Only A Play″ has had a long production history. In 1978, under the title ″Broadway, Broadway″ and starring Coco and Geraldine Page, it died in Philadelphia en route to New York. Four years later, a revised version had a short run at New York’s tiny Manhattan Punch Line Theater. McNally’s persistence has paid off. His latest reincarnation of ″It’s Only A Play″ is a winner.

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