Cloud 42

at Live Bait Theater

Audiences aren’t all that difficult to please, a street-smart, salt-of-the-earth cabbie named Emma Bovary says midway through the second act of Terrence McNally’s backstage farce It’s Only a Play. They just want to see “life, lots and lots of life,” she explains to a distraught crowd at an opening-night party for a Broadway flop. In McNally’s world of pompous theater directors, bitchy actors, and petty theater critics, Bovary’s observations are meant to provide a healthy dose of wisdom, reality, and street knowledge. Audience members, according to Bovary, just want “to see themselves, only bigger and better.”

True enough. But sometimes a decent plot doesn’t hurt. On the night I attended Cloud 42’s excellent production of McNally’s play, the gentleman seated next to me was perplexed. He appeared to be in his late 50s and, like McNally’s taxi driver, seemed to be the only one in the audience who wasn’t associated in some way with the theater. “I think the actors are all excellent, and there are some really funny lines,” he commented at intermission. “But it’s not going anywhere. A play has to go up and down. It has to lead somewhere. This play just seems to reach a plateau and go flat the rest of the way. A play’s got to raise some questions before the intermission that you want answered. I don’t care about what’s going to happen next.” His remarks seemed every bit as true as the wisdom spewed forth by Bovary, McNally’s spokesman for the masses.

It’s Only A Play essentially updates the formula of classic Broadway behind-the-scenes comedies such as Moss Hart’s Light Up the Sky, taking us into the exclusive haunts of Broadway’s rich and famous, where a small gathering of nervous theater people await reviews of Peter Austin’s new drama The Golden Egg. Washed-up TV actor James Wicker (Harry Althaus), who turned down the opportunity to star in the play, watches the first noncommital TV reviews with glee alongside fretful first-time producer Julia Budder (Pat Kane), pill-popping leading lady Virginia Noyes (Jane Blass), star-struck bellhop Gus P. Head (Scott Denny), angst-ridden Chicago theater director and kleptomaniac Frank Finger (Ted Kamp), self-aggrandizing playwright Austin (John Hines), and foppish theater critic Ira Drew (Jeffrey Hughes), who skewers the theater world because he lacks the talent to participate in it.

The characters trade barbs, tell in-jokes, and wallow in self-importance, viewing the plight of their play as more important than the account of a plane crash on television. Cautious optimism (“They’re all saying you’ve got a big hit on your hands,” the bellhop effuses) gives way to grief and anger when Bovary arrives with the early edition of the New York Times. The almighty Frank Rich viciously rips into everyone involved in the production, from the director down to the coat checkers. His critique forces the characters to reevaluate their reasons for entering the theater and finally bond together with a new sense of cooperation and commitment to their art. At play’s close they promise they won’t let their theater go dark–they’ll keep it alive with a new show about the high art of theater, a show filled with smiles and laughs and tears. It will be called It’s Only a Play.

It’s Only a Play is a show by, about, and for theater people. It’s a celebration of the art and a plea for its preservation. Though at times it mocks the vanity and narrow-mindedness of the theater world, it ends by embracing “this ancient art form” and all the quirks and foibles of those who give their lives to it.

A more apt title for McNally’s work would be It’s Not Enough for a Play, for despite its humor and good intentions it doesn’t take us anyplace we haven’t visited before. Little effort has been made to modernize the timeworn conceits of the genre, other than to replace old names with newer ones. Instead of discussing the Barrymores and Alfred Lunt, McNally’s characters talk about Regis Philbin, Joan Rivers, Roseanne Barr, and the cast of The Song of Jacob Zulu. A lot of the inside jokes are quite funny, but they won’t be for long. Some already feel dated. And waiting for theater reviews to come out (much to my chagrin) is not the most fascinating of plots.

That said, Cloud 42, under the superb, fast-paced direction of Judy O’Malley, gives McNally’s play as good a production as anybody could hope for. Each of the eight actors displays extraordinary wit and expert comic timing. Worth mentioning is Ted Kamp’s bad-boy director Finger, who knows exactly how to use self-deprecation to deify himself. A couple of the players go a touch overboard in their characterizations, but that fault is understandable given the lack of an intriguing plot.