Theater & Dance
"It's Only a Play"

By: Terrence McNally
Produced by: Hillbarn Theatre
Directed by: Steve Muterspaugh
Featuring: Jesse Caldwell, Ryan C. Cordero, Josiah Frampton, April Green, Chris Reber, Gary Schoenfeld, Luisa Sermol
Running time: 150 minutes, one intermission
When: October10-27, 2019
Where: Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 East Hillsdale Boulevard, Foster City
Tickets: $27–$60. Call 650-349-6411, extension 2; or visit

Schoenfeld, Frampton, Green, Cordero, Reber, Caldwell, Sermol
Tracy Martin / Hillbarn Theatre
The critic reads his cruel reviews in "It's Only a Play" at Hillbarn Theatre. From left are Gary Schoenfeld as Frank Finger, Josiah Frampton as Gus, April Green as Julia Budder, Ryan Cordero as Peter Austin, Chris Reber as James Wicker, Jesse Caldwell as Ira Drew, and Louisa Sermol as Virginia Noyse. The show runs October 10 through October 27, 2019.
It's only a mish-mash script
for 'It's Only a Play'
Hillbarn tries its best with weak Terrence McNally play
October 17, 2019

On opening night at Hillbarn Theatre, Terrance McNally’s “It’s Only a Play” seemed a little disjointed and not quite ready for prime time.

Part of that was some of the cast wasn’t really in sync yet. A few flubbed lines, some awkward bits of poor timing.

But mainly it is the play itself that doesn’t make it easy for the cast to become a coherent team. It is, perhaps, McNally’s mash note to the Broadway stage, but it is more a collection of clever snippets, pasted together with school glue and chewing gum, rather than a unified piece that can move toward a solid goal. Like a series of skits, it offers up a bunch of often cute, humorous bits, but they don’t really go anywhere, and then the play sort of falls apart at the end.

That said, all seven members of the cast assembled under director Steve Muterspaugh each gets a skit that works, mostly for comedy, and sometimes for bittersweet moments. All seven performers have at least some excellent moments.

This inside-theater story is an opening night party at the townhome of the first-time producer of the new play, “The Golden Egg.” On hand we have that producer, Julia, played by April Green; the playwright, Peter, played by Ryan C. Cordero; James, the playwright’s best friend and a TV actor, played by Chris Reber; the director, Frank, played by Gary Schoenfeld; the star, Virginia, played by Louis Sermol; Gus, a would-be actor played by Josiah Frampton; and Ira, a nasty theater critic played by Jesse Caldwell.

These players get to strut their stuff on one of the most beautiful sets ever seen at Hillbarn, designed by the talented Kuo-Hao Lo. Elegant gray walls with nicely designed nooks for art and other collectibles, double-wood doors that lead to a hall and marble staircase. Very nice.

Green is very funny as Julia, who is using her rich husband’s money to finance the play. She is naïve and sweet, and supportive of the neurotic, insecure theater people who have gathered to await early reviews on opening night, while a crowd of A-listers parties off stage. She loves music, but always gets the lyrics wrong. “Like that wonderful song says,” she tells us at one point, “If I can make it here, I can make it there.”

Valerie Bradshaw did a mostly delightful job with costumes, hair and makeup, but I thought Green’s solid blue gown was somehow lacking. It doesn’t say “Manhattan rich woman.” It just says, “Oh look, here is a very attractive woman in a blue gown.”

Green is hilarious with her dumb-blonde voice. (In real life, her voice is deeper and solid.)

Cordero has to play as an over-the-top, panicked playwright, and it’s not a rewarding role. But he does have a brief moment that art fans may really like: When, in hysterics, he throws on someone’s floor-length mink coat, then briefly stands exactly like Rodin’s statue of Balzac. Wonderful.

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Reber is fun to watch throughout, which is good, because he has a lot of dialogue. He’s a generally happy guy, because he’s making a lot of money as a TV actor. He had turned down the lead role in the play, “The Golden Egg,” which gets plenty of discussion. He mostly makes fun of the play, but tries to keep his friend the playwright from finding out.

Schoenfeld has some general sitcom-level stuff to do as the arrogant British director of the show, who makes a lot of noise about wanting to have a flop show, because he’s never had one. But when “The Golden Egg” turns out to be a flop, he goes nuts, and has a good scene when he relives the childhood abuse he suffered from his father. The writing for this scene is pretty good, although its blocking is not; but Schoenfeld really works it, and it is impressive. He is clad in a beautiful purple paisley tux.

Sermol is very strong as Virginia, an actress who’d left Broadway for the movies, where she flopped, and now she’s trying for a stage comeback. Some funny stuff, including her ankle-monitor and having to call her parole officer. Virginia is a major-league substance abuser.

Frampton is the would-be actor who is thrilled to meet all these people while working as the coat-check guy. He delivers coats from the casts of various Broadway shows, with plenty of jokes built into his dialogue. When he delivers coats from the cast of “Rock of Ages,” someone says, “I thought ‘Rock of Ages’ closed.” The response: “It did, but nobody told them.”

Caldwell, as the nasty critic who has a a habit of saying horrible, cruel things about actors, turns out to be a guy who really loves theater very much, and wants to be a playwright. Toward the end, when everybody is being all mushy, he says, “I’ve been in theater, too.” Virginia responds, “On the outside, looking in.”

Lighting designer Amber G. Watts kept that beautiful set well defined. Sound design by James Goode was excellent. Hillbarn executive artistic director Dan Demers provided all those elegant Manhattan gewgaws in the art nooks.

John Orr is a member of the America Theatre Critics Association. Email him at
Green, Reber
Tracy Martin / Hillbarn Theatre
April Green as Julia Budder, left, and Chris Reber as James Wicker in "It's Only a Play," running October 10-27, 2019, at Hillbarn Theatre.