Everyone’s a critic

Uptown Players’ farce ‘It’s Only a Play’ lets fly a whirlwind of laughter


Cara Statham-Serber, B.J. Cleveland and Chamblee Ferguson await a make-or-break review in the backstage farce “It’s Only a Play.’ (Photo by Mike Morgan)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Executive Editor

“I don’t read reviews.”

Oh, how many times I’ve heard that one. Almost as many as my reviews have been excerpted, or I’ve been thanked for my kind comments, or excoriated for my “jackass” opinions.

“Don’t read reviews.” Sheeesh. And Hillary doesn’t care about polls.

Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 9.51.06 AMLet’s face it: Basic human ego craves feedback from other humans. “Does this dress make me look fat?” “Was I the first?” “Did you like my Instagram pic? I’ll like yours.” Some people take reviews as constructive criticism to find room to improve. Some think of them as part of the business part of show business. And some — Terrence McNally, for instance, with It’s Only a Play, now at the Kalita Humphreys — treat them as the basis for creativity. And maybe a little revenge.

Although not a new play — McNally wrote it back in the 1980s, after an apparent falling out with Nathan Lane — this version of It’s Only a Play made its Broadway debut last year: Updated, smoothed over (Lane starred in it) and sharpened. It’s the Inside Baseball of theater contrivances. It’s opening night of a new American play, The Golden Egg, and members of the company are gathering in the bedroom of the show’s producer, Julia Budder (Cara Statham-Serber).

There’s a lot riding on the show: it’s the Broadway debut of playwright Peter Austin (Chamblee Ferguson) whose work has kept him busy in regional theater without a mainstream hit. He’s assembled a promising team, including Oscar winning actress Virginia Noyes (Shannon McGrann) trying to polish her tarnished rep as an addict; and celebrated British director Frank Finger (Luke Longacre). All that’s missing from the lineup is Austin’s best friend James Wicker (B.J. Cleveland), who turned down the leading role, ostensibly because he couldn’t get out of his long-running sitcom, but actually because the thinks the script for The Golden Egg is a piece of shit.

But who will New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley agree with? That’s what holds everyone’s attention throughout Act 1; in Act 2, they deal with the fallout.

McNally clearly considers critics a necessary evil — resenting the sway some can hold, but respecting their ability to generate excitement for new American plays. The problem is, where are all the new American plays? Not on Broadway, it seems, which has become a clearinghouse for revivals, musicals, and musical adaptations of revivals of plays. And whose fault is that? Not the critics… unless you count ones like Ira Drew (Steven D, Morris), a John Simon-esque hatchet man who revels in crafting hate-filled one-liners that unfairly torpedo good work, while desperately seeking popularity with the theater community itself. In McNally’s world, we’re all victims, all conspirators, and all capable of making a difference … even though we rarely do.

And the conundrum of It’s Only a Play is, McNally clearly has a ball making his characters outrageous caricatures who spew venom like cobras. Some of the biggest laughs in this broadest of farces come from the unbridled assessments of bad theater. There’s nothing remotely accurate about the reviews the characters read of their own play, but that’s all part of the fantasy: Theater is removed from reality, a place where we create our own happy endings and live out our petty vengeances. Why not have fun doing it?

The cast of this production is certainly having huge amounts of fun. The show has been crafted to give great gags and set-pieces to its cast, from McGrann’s scene-stealing druggy to Matt Holmes as the innocent farmboy in NYC for the first time to Statham-Serber Malapropping all over the place. Cleveland, who usually gets handed the most flamboyant roles, gets to underplay it some here. He’s the vain but comparatively stable eye of this hurricane of hilarity.

Cheryl Denson’s direction is a master class in comedic pacing, knowing how to sneak visual gags and in-jokes (example: pay close attention to all the coats brought in from party guests) that layer like symphonic orchestrations rather than drown you in a fusillade of hit-or-miss one-liners. It’s a bright and chuckle-filled evening, tailor-made for devoted theater queens who like a little insider — or in this case, backstage — humor.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 22, 2016.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Theatre Too announces upcoming season

nancegroup2BBruce R. Coleman, the acting artistic director of Theatre 3, has announced the 2016–17 season for the company’s downstairs black box space, called Theatre Too.

The season starts with The Sum of Us (Sept. 1–25), a comedy-drama about the relationship between a widower and his gay son. Mark C. Guerra will direct. Next up will be A Christmas Carol: The Radio Show (Nov. 25–Dec. 11), which returns from last year’s run. B.J. Cleveland, pictured, once again performs the one-man tour-de-force. Another popular staple takes over after that, with I Love You, You’re Perfect Now Change (Dec. 29–Feb. 12, 2017… though expect an extension, as usually happens with this show). The romantic musical revue will be directed by Cleveland.

There’s another revival of sorts with The Empress, The Lady and The Pearl, Part II: Miss Billie and Miss Freddie (March 23–April 16, 2017). Denise Lee, who played blues legend Bessie Smith (“The Empress”) in Part I earlier this year, comes back, this time as Billie Holliday. The season will end with Con McPherson’s thriller The Birds (May 25–June 18, 2017), based on the Daphne Du Maurier novella (and also the basis for the Hitchcock film). Tickets are available here.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

REVIEW: ‘Shear Madness’ at T3

shearmadness_verticle_1Theatre 3 has turned its smaller, downstairs Theatre Too space into a kind of living museum of reliable shows. I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change keep coming back, an Avenue Q ran there for upwards of a year. Currently, it’s the home for Shear Madness, one of the more enduring regional shows for nearly four decades. (It’s been playing in Boston since about 1980 and has been in the District of Columbia for 27 years.)

As much a game as a piece of theater, it’s set in Uptown Dallas’ Shear Madness salon (the location is flexible from production to production, as are the time-sensitive jokes with pop culture references). Run by flamboyant stylist Tony Whitcomb (B.J. Cleveland), it’s the setting for a murder, a respected concert pianist and Tony’s landlady. Who committed the crime? Tony? His saucy assistant, Barbara (Sherry Hopkins)? Muddle-headed socialite Mrs. Schubert (Gene Raye Price)? Shady antique dealer Eddie Lawrence (David Meglino)? Cops Nick (Bradley Campbell) and Mikey (Matthew Clark) want to find out.

And that’s where the audience comes in. Midway through Act 1, the house lights come up, and attendees are invited to ask questions, assist in restaging the events and suggest theories (which the characters might be able to explain away). The audience then even votes on who the killer is.

This isn’t the inventor of audience participation theater. Peter Pan requires children to clap if they want Tinkerbell to live, and British pantos — children’s holiday plays — rely on hissing, sing-alongs and such. And of course, both the musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood and the film Clue vary their endings (one with audience votes, one with the luck of the draw). The effectiveness usually depends upon the improv skills of the cast and the engagement of the audience.

At press night for Shear Madness, the audience was involved but sometimes puzzled about how to proceed, and the finale lacked some punch. Until then, though, the play is a hoot — not subtle by any means, but silly fun. The one-liners include a slew of groaners (as up-to-date as references to Solange Knowles) with a Mad-Libs mentality (insert cagey reference to Dallas culture here). But the cast is energetic, with Cleveland exhausting as the frenetic flirt (following Pageant, this is the second show in a row with Cleveland where the audience votes on the outcome), and the slapstick works most of the time, especially in the garishly decorated set. Shear Madness is set to run most of the summer in Theatre Too; it’s a good way to get away from the heat and have a rollicking few hours of nonsense.

Through July 20 at Theatre 3.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Column Awards: Full list of winners

columnIt’s not as well covered at the Oscars, but days after Hollywood hands out its treasures, The Column Awards — honoring North Texas theater — dished out its awards.

The Columns break down their awards into Equity and Non-Equity productions, which virtually doubles the recipients and leads to, for instance ICT MainStage, a Non-Equity company, walking away with the most wins of the evening (12). But multiple award-winning companies also include Uptown Players (6), Theatre Three (5), WaterTower Theatre (4) and Dallas Theater Center and Lyric Stage (3 apiece).

The complete list of winners after the jump.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

REVIEW: ‘It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play’

It’s a Wonderful Life is a heartwarming Christmas classic: A tender movie that avoids being cloying most of the time on its way to causing your heart to sink. It’s hard to go wrong with it.

But also hard to improve upon, as playwright Joe Landry proves in his “Live Radio Play” version, now at WaterTower Theatre. All the elements are there: An aw-shucks dumpling of a George Bailey (Matthew Laurence-Moore), a slimy Mr. Potter (B.J. Cleveland, in one of many impersonations), ZuZu remarking that an angel got its wings. We recognize them all from the movie.

And that’s exactly what’s wrong with this play — it’s not a play. Nor is it the movie. It’s little more than a staged reading, and it begs you to ask: How come?

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

UPDATE: Funeral set for B.J. Cleveland’s dad

The memorial service for the father of B.J. Cleveland — who died just hours before B.J. went on stage in Victor/Victoria for an ailing Paul Taylor — has been set for 11 a.m. on Wednesday at the Glenview Baptist Church at 4805 N.E. Loop 820 in the Haltom City area. Interment will follow at the Greenwood Cemetery. For those wishing to sit with the family, visitation will take place Tuesday from 6 to 8 p.m. and the Greenwood Funeral Home at 3100 White Settlement Road in Fort Worth.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

B.J. Cleveland: Tragedy to triumph in 24 hours

If you ever wondered whether the theatrical cliche “the show must go on!” was anything more than that — a cliche — you’d know for sure it isn’t if you were at the Kalita Humphreys on Sunday. Our friends at TheaterJones post this amazing story about B.J. Cleveland stepping in for an injured actor in Uptown Players’ production of Victor/Victoria (which I reviewed in this week’s edition). You can also read about it from Elaine Liner at the Dallas Observer blog. Facebook was flooded with comments and admiration for Cleveland, one of North Texas’ most notable and popular entertainers for more than 20 years.

I texted B.J. Sunday night to offer my condolences and congratulate him on his triumph just a few hours after his curtain call. He was in the middle of writing his father’s obituary.

That’s one dedicated theater queen, I’ll tell ya.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones