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Off the Wall’s 'It’s Only a Play' skewers theater world

Who doesn’t like a little gossip, a little dish and countless celebrity names falling from the lips? Add to that a little brass and a lot of sass and you have some of the driving forces behind Terrence McNally’s show business send-up It’s Only a Play, the next production from Milwaukee’s Off the Wall Theatre.

It’s the Midwest premiere of the newly revised version of McNally’s 1978 work, updated in 2015 to reflect today’s personalities and issues. According to Off the Wall artistic director Dale Gutzman, the play is as funny as when it was first written, but still acts as a catharsis for McNally and anyone else who has ever spent time in the theater.

“I saw a production in 1978, so I knew the play,” says Gutzman, who directs the current production. “I saw it on Broadway again last year and fell in love with it.”

It's Only a Play depicts a group of theater artists eagerly awaiting their opening night reviews, skewering their foibles as it goes.

It's Only a Play depicts a group of theater artists eagerly awaiting their opening night reviews, skewering their foibles as it goes.

The storyline is pure show business, but takes a pause from the usual palaver to dig a little deeper into the lives of its unusual, but ultimately familiar theatrical characters, Gutzman says. “It’s funny and moves like a sitcom, but being McNally, there is more going on there than you first might think.”

The plot goes something like this: It's opening night of a new play by Peter Austin (Mark Hagen) called The Golden Egg. Friends and foes gather at the cast party to await the first reviews. Among them are a television sitcom star (Randall Anderson), a drugged-out former film actor (Marilyn White), an eccentric British director (Jeremy C. Welter), a vapid but well-meaning producer, (Laura Monagle), a vitriolic critic (Lawrence Lukasavage), and a naive young actor (Patrick McCann) who has come to New York to become a star — though for now, he's just handling the coats.)

To add greater dimension to what otherwise might be prosaic proceedings, McNally has set the action in a bedroom-turned-coatroom above the party proper. It is here where his characters gather to snipe and sneer at the people downstairs while they await the critical reviews that will determine the play’s fate.

“In a way, this is Terrence McNally’s love letter to the theater and his life and it draws on every show he’s ever worked on,” Gutzman says. “He pokes fun at playwrights, actors and a lot of critics. However, the play’s deeper themes deal with what artists are looking for and why they create.”

Critics can make or break a show, Gutzman allows, and even the most revered theater pieces have suffered at their hands. Shows like Porgy and Bess, West Side Story and The Fantasticks were all greeted with critical disdain when they first premiered, but each has gone on to make its mark in theatrical history. The need to create, it seems, is enough to help artists overcome the odds and, in some cases, provide them with the success they seek.

“Artists who are honest with themselves understand that they have an innate drive to make their views of the world public,” says Gutzman. “Performing in front of others terrifies most people, which makes us fans of those who have an almost masochistic drive to bare their souls. This play wonderfully explores this idea.”

Gutzman also admires the out playwright's treatment of gays in the theater. Where many shows presented before It's Only a Play's original production in '78 addressed the gay struggle in America, McNally's matter-of-factly treats gays as another part of everyday life. But that doesn’t mean they escape the playwright’s wrath.

“There are some references and jokes about who knew and worked with whom, and one character is decried for being less masculine than Harvey Fierstein,” Gutzman says. “There are still lots of issues that gays face, but it’s refreshing that the gay characters aren’t filled with angst about being gay and simply function in the plot like anyone else.”

Gutzman had to make adjustments to the play’s staging to accommodate Off the Wall’s small space. McNally originally developed his play for a wide stage, and Gutzman had to adjust the proceedings for a more vertical rather than horizontal format, something that proved challenging given the play’s rapid-fire dialogue.

“Working out the puzzles of each show has been the great joy of my life in the theater,” Gutzman says.

He found a model in the traditional drawing room comedies of Noël Coward. The famous playwright and actor also offered a piece of advice from which Gutzman says all theatrical impresarios could learn.

“Noël Coward used to say, ‘Say your lines clearly and try not to bump into the furniture,’” Gutman explains. “I think the lesson there is that we less-than-Broadway theater companies work too hard and should let the lines themselves get the laughs.”

For Gutzman, directing comedy is much harder than directing drama. In drama, the public response is unknown until the end. If the audience isn’t laughing, then you know a comedy is missing its mark.

“The actors need to find the right balance to be totally in the moment, and yet real in relating to the audience,” Gutzman says. Play too much to the audience and the production becomes slapstick and overwrought, while too little relation with viewers may result in a play that’s charming, but fails to connect, he explains.

In the case of a drama, he says, the actors only have to relate to each other. For a comedy, even the atmosphere in the theater can have an impact on the success of the performance, requiring a more concentrated effort to hit that desired balance with the audience.

Given Gutzman's track record, we can expect those laughs. And a minimum of furniture bumping.

Off the Wall Theatre’s production of Terrence McNally’s It’s Only a Play runs April 28 through May 8 at 127 E. Wells St., Milwaukee. Tickets are $25 (with reduced student prices at some performances), and can be purchased at 414-484-8874 or offthewalltheatre.com.

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