Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Write What You Know

No matter whether they are crafting a short story, novel, drama, or screenplay, one of the strongest pieces of advice given to writers is to "write what you know." Reaching back to mine narrative gold from one's past experiences is part of what sets one person's artistic vision apart from another's. It has certainly worked well for monologists like Dan Hoyle, Margaret Cho, Martin Dockery, Ann Randolph, and John Leguizamo.

It's an old joke that the biggest risk one takes in befriending a writer is that you might end up in one of their stories. And, when interviewed about their new novel, screenplay, or theatre piece, many writers are asked "How much of this is autobiographical?" Consider, for a moment, the facts that inspired some of America's great playwrights:

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In the Spring of 1965 I took advantage of what sounded like a great bargain. The producers of a new play directed by Michael Cacoyannis were offering tickets priced at one dollar for a drama starring Eileen Heckart that had opened to execrable reviews. Although And Things That Go Bump in the Night was one of my earliest "WTF!" experiences in theatregoing (followed by 1967's Gorilla Queen, 1968's Her First Roman, and 1971's Prettybelle), the price was right.

From what I saw on the stage of the Royale Theatre (as well as 1968's short sexual farce entitled Noon, in which Charlotte Rae appeared dressed as a dominatrix), I could never have predicted that the show's 27-year-old playwright would go on to write The Ritz (1975), Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (1982), The Lisbon Traviata (1989), Love! Valour! Compassion (1994), Master Class (1995), Mothers and Sons (2014), as well as the librettos for such musicals as The Rink (1984), Kiss of the Spider Woman (1992), Ragtime (1996), The Full Monty (2000), Anastasia (2016), and three operas composed by Jake Heggie: Dead Man Walking (2000), Three Decembers (2008), and Great Scott (2015). Thanks to artistic director Ed Decker, in recent years San Francisco's New Conservatory Theatre Center has enjoyed a close working relationship with Terrence McNally. The company has staged Love! Valour! Compassion!, Master Class, The Ritz, Mothers and Sons, A Perfect Ganesh (1993), Corpus Christi (1998), and Some Men (2006) as well as 2005's world premiere of Crucifixion.

NCTC is currently presenting It's Only A Play, which was first produced off-Broadway in 1982 and updated for its star-studded 2014 Broadway revival. With a few more updates for topical relevance, NCTC's production may not be the kind of backstage farce that is driven by physical comedy (like Noises Off!, both plays had their world premieres in 1982). However, it does a splendid job of showing how the pressures of a Broadway opening night at the historic Ethel Barrymore Theatre (which has never hosted a McNally play) can work the nerves of the playwright, producer, director, and female lead as well a cynical critic and a wide-eyed coat check boy attending the evening's post-performance party.

P.A. Cooley, Michaela Greeley, Chris Morrell, and Kevin Singer
in a scene from It's Only A Play (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Directed by Arturo Catricala on Kuo Hao Lo's handsome unit set (with costumes by Keri Fitch and sound design by James Ard), It's Only A Play gives a fair sampling of the kind of material a lifetime spent working in film, theatre, and opera can provide to a playwright with a scathing sense of humor. Expansive in its theatrical exposition, bursting with bitchiness, nattered with neuroses, and half-cocked with hysteria, McNally's script nevertheless makes room for a newcomer to the New York theatre scene to remain blissfully innocent in the company of six war-weary theatre professionals and an equally vicious dog. Those directly involved with the production of The Golden Egg include:
  • Peter Austin (Chris Morrell), a playwright of questionable talent who is finally making his Broadway debut with a play destined to land on the Barrymore's historic stage like a lead balloon. Filled with an undying passion for the theatre, he is blessed (or cursed) with a coterie of friends who cannot bring themselves to tell him how truly awful his writing is.
  • Julia Budder (Melissa Keith), a ditzy socialite with lots of money who is making her debut as a producer. A contemporary hybrid of Mrs. Malaprop, Florence Foster Jenkins, and Betsy DeVos, she is so culturally illiterate that she does not know that the Shubert brothers have been dead for half a century and the Barrymore is owned by The Shubert Organization (Broadway's biggest power broker). Julia's constant mangling of famous quotes ("Irving Berlin said it best with 'There's no business like the one we're in") makes it clear that, were it not for her vast wealth, she would not be on Broadway in any capacity other than as a ticket buyer.
  • Frank Finger (Kevin Singer), a British stage director whose college productions included an Art Deco version of Electra and a gay version of Waiting for Godot. A kleptomaniac with a curious habit of taking his pants off whenever he feels pressured, Finger is desperately craving a flop in order to break the curse of having been labeled Britain's new theatrical genius.
  • Virginia Noyes (Michaela Greeley), an aging actress whose Hollywood career hit the skids after she won an Oscar for her portrayal of an autistic social worker in Bed/Stuy Sunset. A raging narcissist who hides her cocaine in a lipstick case, Virginia recently left the West Coast after a somewhat scandalous incident and is hoping to resuscitate her career on Broadway despite the fact that she must wear a court-ordered ankle monitor at all times.
Geoffrey Colton (Peter Austin), Melissa Keith (Julie) Budder, and
P.A. Cooley (James Wicker) have a lot riding on an opening night
in It's Only A Play (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Others present for the opening night party in Julia's upscale digs include:
  • James Wicker (P.A. Cooley), the playwright's oldest friend who has taken a red eye from Los Angeles to New York in order to attend the play's premiere. An actor who has been paid handsomely for his work during nine seasons of a television soap opera, Jimmy's caustic wit (combined with an eternally wounded ego) is the engine that drives much of the play. This is a man with no qualms about calling Liza Minnelli "a cunt," referring to Ben Brantley, the powerful chief theatre critic for The New York Times, as "Benito" (a subtle reference to Mussolini), or imagining that there will soon be a production of Chekhov's classic play, Three Sisters, cast with the Kardashians. During the opening night's intermission break, he apparently had Bernadette Peters doubled over in laughter as he flapped his arms to indicate that the play was a real "turkey."
  • Ira Drew (Geoffrey Colton), known as the most vicious drama critic in New York. Despite any perceived conflict of interest or utter lack of professionalism, Drew is attending the opening night party because of his long-held quest to find someone who will produce a play he has written.
  • Gus P. Head (Nicholas Decker), a young man from the Midwest who is handling the coat check chores at the opening night party. Touchingly naive and thrilled to have met so many famous people, he hopes to audition that night for Julia with his rendition of "Defying Gravity" from Wicked. Gus has a habit of ending every sentence by exclaiming "Wow!" and, when asked if he is "in the business," studiously replies "I'm an interdisciplinary theatre artist. I'm an actor slash singer slash dancer slash comedian slash performance artist slash mime. I have a black belt in karate and can operate heavy farm equipment. Other skills on request."
Chris Morrell, P.A. Cooley, and Geoffrey Colton in
a scene from It's Only A Play (Photo by: Lois Tema)

An obvious love letter to the extremes of narcissism, self-pity, substance abuse, and freedom from logic that permeate the theatre world, It's Only A Play builds momentum on waves of acid-laced repartee that crash across the stage floor in wonderfully silly bits of physical comedy (watch for the gaudy pile of garments from the cast of Aladdin). One can easily distinguish the people clinging to optimism (the playwright, producer, and coat check boy) from those ready to slice, dice, chew, and spit out anything -- and anyone -- that comes to mind (the actress, director, critic, best friend, and dog). It's the kind of "fly-on-the-wall" experience every theatre geek craves.

While NCTC's ensemble will, no doubt, sharpen its timing over the course of the run, P.A. Cooley, Kevin Singer, Melissa Keith, and Michaela Greeley are already lobbing McNally's zingers to the audience with the exuberance of Sea World animal trainers feeding treats to the participants in their dolphin shows.

Performances of It's Only A Play continue through April 1 at New Conservatory Theatre Center (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

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