By Anthony Chase
As a critic and commentator on the dramatic arts for over 30 years, I am highly experienced at watching. I have enjoyed a theatrical career seated in the audience. This Saturday, however, I will depart from my accustomed seat in the audience to play drama critic Ira Drew in Buffalo United Artists’ (BUA) production of Terrence McNally’s comedy, It’s Only a Play.” This is the story of a Broadway opening night when the playwright, producer, actors and friends gather to await the reviews.
Terrence McNally’s work is well known to Buffalo audiences, and the author is a particular favorite of BUA, which has performed such McNally plays as Love! Valour! Compassion!; Mothers and Sons; The Lisbon Traviata; The Ritz; Andre’s Mother; Corpus Christi; and Some Men. This fall, the New Phoenix will present his play, Lips Together, Teeth Apart, which was also done, years ago at the Kavinoky. MusicalFare did his play about Maria Callas, Master Class. The Irish Classical Theatre Company did his musical, A Man of No Importance. In its distant past, Ujima Theater Company did his dark comedy, Bad Habits. His musicals Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Full Monty have toured to Shea’s.
Terrence McNally is one of the most important playwrights in the American theater. He has four Tony awards to his credit, among a long litany of other accolades.
Last April, the great man came to Buffalo, accompanied by his husband, Broadway producer Tom Kirdahy. He participated in a fundraiser for BUA, reading from his new book, “Selected Works: A Memoir in Plays,” at the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site, followed by a reception at the Hotel Lenox. The next day, he and Kirdahy participated in a master class at Buffalo State, co-sponsored by the Dramatists Guild.
Taking Terrence and Tom to Niagara Falls, out for chicken wings at Gabriel’s Gate, and to Santasiero’s Restaurant for “Pasta Fasoola” and homemade minestrone was rather surreal. They live in a rarified theater world. As we sat in a booth at Gabriel’s Gate, Tom took out his phone to text someone.
“Who are you texting?” asked Terrence.
“I want to tell Christine Baranski that we’re having beef on weck!” enthused Tom, referring to their close friend, and the original star of It’s Only a Play. Baranski is a Buffalo native.
Every moment of the McNally/Kirdahy visit was joyous. Among the most special parts, however, was hosting them in our home with the Buffalo cast of It’s Only a Play. Terrence enjoyed being introduced to the Buffalo actors and matching them to the characters they would play. I will concede, they are a charming crew: Anthony Alcocer as wunderkind director Frank Finger; Adam Hayes as Gus the coat check guy with theatrical aspirations; Lisa Ludwig as Virginia Noyes, chemically challenged star of stage and screen; Mary Kate O’Connell and socialite-turned-producer Julia Budder; and Michael Seitz as playwright Peter Austin.
In major cities, the characters in It’s Only a Play.have typically been portrayed by celebrities, adding to the merriment of a script that is brimming with show business jokes. I saw the 1992 Los Angeles production in which Charles Nelson Reilly played television star Jimmy Wicker, which made for hilarity when the character makes a number of disparaging jokes about Charles Nelson Reilly. James Coco originated the role. For BUA, the role will be played by (who else?) Buffalo’s own legend of irreverent comedy, Jimmy Janowski.
Terrence easily identified Lisa Ludwig as a potential Broadway star, and Jimmy Janowski as a master of comic invention. He adored the casting of Mary Kate O’Connell as producer, Julia Budder, a role previously played by Christine Baranski and Megan Mullally. “She is entirely different from Christine [Baranski] or Megan [Mullally], but she is perfect to play Julia!” he told us. (O’Connell’s dog, Rosy, hopped up next to Terrence on a brocade settee, attached herself to his hip and would not budge all evening).
Full disclosure: Terrence and Tom are longtime friends of my husband, BUA producer Javier Bustillos and me. (In case you were wondering how I got talked into doing this show, there is your explanation). Tom officiated at our wedding and Terrence was a witness. They were entirely enchanted that I had been cast as Ira Drew, a drama critic with a secret agenda, most recently played in New York by F. Murray Abraham.
In a real life moment that mirrors a moment from the play, the guests at the party decided that we needed to take a photo with Terrence McNally. (Many selfies were taken that night). One snapshot accompanies this article. In addition to the cast, our director, Drew McCabe; producer, Javier Bustillos; and stage manager, Carly Weiser are in the picture.
Note: in the other photos, Lisa Ludwig was not holding a glass. Terrence and Tom intervened.
“Lisa! If you’re playing Virginia, you’ve got to have a drink in your hand for the photo!”
The actress obliged.
On Broadway, Virginia was played by Stockard Channing. Eileen Brennan played the part in L.A.
It’s Only a Play.is a celebration of the love and life that emanate from the theater. Prepare to be regaled with jokes at the expense of the world of celebrity, including Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Chris Christie and the Pope. Who but Terrence McNally could land jokes about Faye Dunaway, Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand, Chita Rivera, Rita Moreno, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and the cast of Matilda, all in one play. Well, maybe Joan Rivers could have done it, not with half as much love.
Terrence McNally’s It’s Only a Play. opens on July 23rd and plays Saturdays and Sundays through August 14th at the Alleyway Theatre. Call 716-886-9239 or visit buffalobua.org for tickets.