PHOTOS COURTESY OF GEORGE STREET PLAYHOUSE

From left to right, Zach Shaffer, Greg Cuellar, Doug Harris, Andy Grotelueschen, Christine Toy Johnson and Julie Halston co-starred in “It’s Only a Play”.

The fourth and final show in the George Street Playhouse’s 2021 online series, “It’s Only a Play,” was filmed on a stage at the home of the George Street Playhouse – the New Brunswick Center for the Performing Arts – and looks like a lot to a production that you might see there. It is also, I believe, the best of the series, and perfectly timed: it is, among other things, a love letter to the theater, and a reminder of what was lost, culturally, during the time of the pandemic.

What it is mostly is just a really funny comedy.

Written by the late Terrence McNally and originally produced off Broadway in 1982, then relaunched on Broadway in 2014 (with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick co-starring), “It’s Only a Play” takes place in the spacious and beautiful home of City of well-meaning but somewhat dark Broadway producer Julia Budder (Christine Toy Johnson), who opens a new play, “The Golden Egg.”

Julie Halston in “It’s Only One Piece”.

James Wicker (Zach Shaffer), a famous actor who came to Los Angeles for the event, is waiting upstairs to see her as opening night takes place downstairs. The pretentious screenwriter of the play Peter Austin (Andy Grotelueschen), his acclaimed and volatile director Frank Finger (Greg Cuellar), his happy drugged wife Virginia Noyes (Julie Halston), the obnoxious critic Ira Drew (Triney Sandoval)) and the help Naive hired Gus P. Head (Doug Harris), who is also an aspiring actor.

The jaded, two-faced James is the central figure, passing the time, while he waits, making rude remarks about countless people in the entertainment industry. He also hides the fact that he hates the play, which his old friend Peter wrote for him, but refused, claiming to be too busy with his hit sitcom.

The drama of the play lies in the characters awaiting the critics, and the New York Times’ decisive response in particular. The suspense got them all excited. Is “The Golden Egg” really as bad as James thinks it is? Will the prodigy Frank finally stumble? Will Julia, producing her first Broadway play after simply providing financial support to others, and Peter, coming to Broadway for the first time as a writer, get the redemption that they are looking for ?

And will Virginia, who gives Julia’s barking dog Valium just to silence him, manage to stay out of trouble for five minutes?

Along the way, they all exchange jokes and pikes, with the occasional self-paced soliloquy. Director Kevin Cahoon adds nice little touches like the music for “There’s No Business Like Show Businesses” (end of the movie’s book), you feel like you’re hearing it for the first time; a virtual intermission; and a very showy font in the credits, with each letter “lit”, as if it were part of a marquee.

Greg Cuellar in “It’s Only One Piece”.

Although the first incarnation of the play is almost 40 years old, it has been updated, with references to “Hamilton” and the Kardashians, among others. Old fashioned references (to Tommy Tune, Harvey Fierstein, Faye Dunaway, F. Murray Abraham, etc.) and updates coexist; it’s probably the only piece to include jokes about Rita Moreno and Chris Christie.

The jokes can be sour, but they don’t seem exactly mean-spirited, as the characters are just chatting, not really lashing out. Here’s a sample of the dialogue, when Virginia encourages James to come to the party downstairs.

Virginia: If Liza sings, you will miss it.
James: You mean there’s a chance she won’t?
Virginia: It’s mean.
James: I’ve been on a sitcom for so long that I think I have to make a joke, even when I’m not. She is one of my best friends.
Virginia: It is ac—. And I say it in the best possible sense.

But there is also poetry in the piece, to counterbalance the rawness. Julia talks about the moment before each play when she looks at the audience and asks herself, “Where are all these people coming from? And Frank welcomes the theater as “a place to talk to each other” via the stage.

Yes, McNally describes Frank as a jerk in many ways. All of these characters are, in fact, very imperfect human beings. But beneath all the entertaining nonsense of “It’s Only a Play”, their love of the theater runs deep and beautiful. Watch this movie and you will look forward to being back at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, or somewhere like it, as soon as possible.

“It’s Only a Play” can be streamed on georgestreetplayhouse.org until July 4.

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