Anyone who has ever had the experience of auditioning for a musical, whether it be on Broadway, off-Broadway, touring or Regional, knows that Wicked’s songs are the most overdone musical theatre audition songs in the entire performing arts universe. Don’t get me wrong, I love the show to death, and I believe its score is absolutely brilliant. But everyone else does too, which is a double edged sword and is why without fail, every time I’m sitting in an audition waiting room, through the wall, I hear someone say, “Hi, everyone, my name is __ and I will be singing ‘Defying Gravity’ from Wicked.” As much as I adore Wicked, I can’t help but cringe and facepalm at the clichéd nature of said generic auditions. So, when Micah Stock (as the naïve, aspiring actor named Gus P. Head) announced that he would be singing “Defying Gravity” in the hopes of impressing the fictional showbusiness veterans of Terrence McNally’s It’s Only A Play, the veterans shuddered, and I could not contain my laughter; the situation hit so very close to home. Stock’s character later pranced around the stage of the Bernard B Jacobs theatre, twirling a black garment resembling a cape wildly and belting an off-key version of “Defying Gravity,” and I doubled over with laughter until tears leaked from my eyes.
I had the pleasure of attending the final performance It’s Only A Play on June 7, 2015. For those who were unable to see the show, It’s Only A Play takes place on opening night of playwright Peter Austin’s new play. Its producer, director, and lead actress, a theatre critic, and Austin’s best friend, about to attend the play’s opening night party, each wait for the reviews to be released to the public with bated breath; they each desperately wish to find out whether or not the play will be a Broadway smash for different reasons (and not everyone in the group is wishing the show well). A starry eyed coat check boy and aspiring actor (Gus P. Head) finds himself in the mix as well. With the use of a witty, humorous, tongue-in-cheek lens, the show functions as a loving yet jaded homage to “the biz.”
Each cast member was costumed in an elegant tuxedo or gown except for T.R. Knight, but even though every cast member was dressed for the same sort of occasion, the characters they embodied each fulfilled different niches (comedic and otherwise) in the world of the play, forming a well-rounded group. For instance, Micah Stock’s Broadway debut as Gus P. Head was a triumph, and the irony in his playing a fresh-faced newcomer to the theatrical world within It’s Only A Play was not lost on me; in fact, I found that it added to his performance as an outsider trying to infiltrate the theatrical “inner sanctum” quite a bit. Katie Finneran played Julia Budder, a sugary sweet, young woman producing her very first Broadway show whose cluelessness is somehow simultaneously slightly annoying and endearing (due to Finneran’s charm). However, for me, the show’s two largest standouts were the incomparable, iconic Nathan Lane and T.R. Knight, whose name I was unfortunately unfamiliar with until the performance.
I believe that without Nathan Lane as James Wicker, Peter Austin’s best friend and a television actor, It’s Only A Play simply could not have functioned. With his charisma, flawless comedic timing and delivery, and tremendous presence, he carried the show on his shoulders, serving as the glue that held the ensemble together. The fact that he was not nominated for a Tony Award for his performance truly astounds me. However, I’ve been told that Lane himself once said something like this concerning the Tony Awards: “It’s Tony night, or, as we like to call it in my house, ‘Passover.’” I feel that this quote certainly applies concerning how unjustly he was passed over for this performance as well.
As for T.R. Knight’s performance as the lunatic director by the name of Frank Finger, I simply don’t understand how he was able to channel such a humongous amount of energy and control it so well eight times a week. He was able to execute the perfect mix of eccentricity, madness, and vulnerability, and kept the audience on its toes at all times. During one show-stopping scene in which he pulled out a hand-puppet with a Peter Pan costume on (for what was clearly a Hand To God homage), he schizophrenically acted out the way his abusive father treated him as a child, and made me want to laugh and cry at the same time. As soon as it ended, I frantically skimmed through my Playbill to double check what Knight’s name was, for I desperately wanted to learn it and remember it.
Especially if you are experienced in the world of performing arts, whether you are a well-versed spectator, creator, or performer of theatre, McNally’s clever, hilarious script is thoroughly delightful. But, even more than that, it tugs at the heartstrings and fills you with an overwhelming sense of belonging. Even though each character in It’s Only A Play has a very different track record within the world of professional theatre, I could connect with each and every one of them on some level. I’ve felt terrified of inadequacy, like Virginia, out of my element, like Julia, ostracized by certain theatrical “inner circles,” like Gus, and so much more. Not only did I laugh until I cried throughout It’s Only A Play; I also couldn’t stop thinking, The world of showbusiness is insane. But I’ve chosen it. I’m a part of that.