‘It’s Only a Play’ takes audience backstage
KATE ALBRIGHT/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL
It's Only a Play
By Terrence McNally
Thursday, Jan. 10-Saturday, Jan. 25, 8 p.m. except Sundays, 3 p.m.
Studio Playhouse, 14 Alvin Place
By GWEN OREL
The stakes could not be higher.
At least, they think so. In a bedroom of a Manhattan apartment, a producer, a playwright, actors and a couple of friends — including a critic — wait for the reviews to come out.
It’s opening night of “The Golden Egg.”
“The title is a metaphor, an ironic metaphor!” playwright Peter Austin talks back to a review that says the title is “asking for it.”
Onstage at Studio Playhouse, a company consisting in part of actors who have worked together before (in fact, director Peyton Thomas is married to actress Stephanie Hedges),
in part of actors who have worked at Studio before, pull aside the curtain to let the audience backstage in Terrence McNally’s comedy “It’s Only a Play.”
Why should anyone care?
In real life, does a review matter?
“In real life” are the operative words, say the cast. Yes, it’s funny to be allowed to see these huge egos puff up with excitement. Backstage comedies are not only funny to theater people, after all; Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter” and Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off” are reliable classics, and of course there’s “Kiss Me, Kate.” “The Prom,” on Broadway last year, begins backstage then moves to the midwest as four bad-review-refugees try to do good.
But what makes McNally’s play work so well is that the people onstage care passionately about something. They wear their open hearts on their sleeves.
“I think that anyone that's had dashed dreams or broken dreams well or stilted dreams, will be able to find an accessibility point for that material for anyone else,” said Chad Anthony Miller, who plays actor James Wicker (called “Wacker” in a hilarious typo in one review the company read out loud).
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“There are a lot of inside jokes,” said Hedges, who plays actress Virginia Noyes, “but the way it’s written it kind of lets people in on the joke.”
“Failure can bring people a lot closer,” said Troy Hall, who plays director Frank Finger. Early in the play, when the company feel confident, their egos clash. Later they find common ground.
And the play also offers the fun of seeing what happens in that celebrity fishbowl, said Ted Cancila, who plays playwright Peter Austin.
Director Peyton Thomas has appeared as an actor before at Studio Playhouse. His fear in doing this play would be to lose the reality of the people onstage.
“I stressed the characters be based in reality, and the comedy and absurdity be based in that,” he said. He wants the audience to love and hate and laugh at the characters.
The way the company of “The Golden Egg” rely on reviews is toxic, said Miller. Outside validation should not determine self-worth.
That said, reviews matter. Hall recalled being in a production where “the group of collaborators, we just knew this was going to be this thing.”
And then a review sliced it down. Morale fell.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow. But at the same time, it’s part of the process. There were lessons we all needed to learn, and strength to grow,” Hall said.
Bill Barry, a Montclairite who has performed at Studio Players several times before, said that when a company has been working together, putting so much time into the project, they develop strong bonds.
“An outsider judging shouldn’t affect your sense of self-worth, but sometimes it’s a bad review.”
Cancila said he reads reviews of other shows, and learns from them.
“I don’t read anything about myself during a show, because I don’t want to be influenced even if they like it. I’ll be thinking about it in my head. So I just wait.”
And of course a good review can bring in an audience, and add a clip for the book, said Hall, to a laugh from the company.
Thomas said that as a young actor, he needed validation. As an older actor, he realizes he’s performing for a group of people.
“I have had plays where I have had a good review and a bad review for the same one. It’s interesting when that happens because it’s never as bad as it sounds or as good as it sounds.”
RIDING THE TRAIN
The biggest challenge for Thomas has been scheduling. The play has no scene breaks. Rehearsals were broken into scenes, but finding time for full run-throughs, which allow the comedy to build, has been challenging.
“It’s not episodic. There are no breaks, even for the audience, to process what happened. It’s just a freight train coming through,” said Faith Blasi, who plays “The Golden Egg” producer Julia Budder.
One of Kevin Ohlweiler’s favorite scenes now is one that was hard for him in the beginning: his opening monologue, a phone call to the person who hired him to be the hired help at the party.
“I’m a musical theater actor,” said Ohlweiler. “One of Peyton’s notes to me is ‘your musical theater is showing.’ It’s been a fun challenge to dial it back.”
“You worked hard on it,” Thomas said.
One scene that many people agreed was touching is when playwright Peter Austin receives a call from his father.
“It’s that moment where your supporters, the people who love you, want to hear the good news, and you can’t really give it to them,” Hall said. “That’s what ends up connecting us all.”
“There are moments within the chaos where you see behind the mask,” said Thomas. “What I stressed as a director and what I wanted as an audience member was to feel like a fly on the wall watching what's going on inside a room in the house that you walked by in Manhattan. And especially now with all of the social media that you think you know whatever actor because you follow their Instagram feed. And I think this I think the appeal for this kind of show is that you can come in. And while this isn't true, it's not a real story, it’s real moments. And you can add your own experience to this and not be told what it is that you're supposed to be seeing or experiencing.”