Performances of the Community Little Theatre production of Terrence McNally’s comedy “It’s Only A Play” wrap up this weekend. An irreverent backstage farce about the comedy of Broadway is alternately raucous, ridiculous, and tender. The cast poses for a group selfie in a scene from the play. Seated, from left, are Ben Simpson, Sarah Duncan, and John Blanchette. Standing, from left, are Roger Philippon, Jen Groover, Brian Pfohl, and Sophie Messina. Submitted photo

“The play’s the Thing.”William Shakespeare

“It’s only a play.” — Terrence McNally

This perfect kick-off to Community Little Theatre’s 83rd season features a thought-provoking concept: a play about a play.

So then, what is a play?

Well, first it is the brainchild of a playwright conceived on paper. Then it is breathed into life by the financial support of a producer, envisioned on a stage by a director and performed by actors who give existence to the characters and authority to the dialogue. And of course, the successful run of a play — its life span — is arbitrarily left in the hands of critics. In the final analysis, the sap tapped from all concerned is slowly reduced to the sweet, sweet syrup that modestly and simply says that a play offers to transport us somewhere, and hopefully we will go willingly.

Terrance McNally’s script for “It’s Only A Play” takes serio-comical aim at everyone involved in the birth of a play, with an honest but exaggerated examination of the opening night of “The Golden Egg,” a play by one Peter Austin, portrayed by CLT’s Brian Pfohl.


The entire cast of CLT’s “It’s Only A Play” in a scene from the show. Cast members, from left, are Roger Philippon, Sophie Messina, Brian Pfohl, John Blanchette, Jennifer Groover, Ben Simpson, and Sarah Duncan. SYSTEM

Here, all of the principal denizens of the theater are represented as stereotypes, warts and all.  The playwright, the producer, director, actors, hangers-on and, of course, the dreaded theater critic are all here. And no one is spared in this maelstrom of character hyperbole, especially the self-deprecating treatment of the playwright, himself. You see, McNally’s “It’s Only a Play” has its roots in an unsuccessful 1978 play originally entitled “Broadway, Broadway,” which closed during tryouts in Philadelphia in 1978.

The play was set to open on Broadway at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. But, alas, the Philadelphia reviews were negative and the Broadway opening was canceled. Six years later, in 1984, McNally, his confidence once shattered, realized that having a show close is not the worst thing that could happen. He revised the play, which opened off-off-Broadway in 1982, was revived off-Broadway again in 1986, and finally made its way to Broadway, Broadway as “It’s Only a Play” in 2014.

And there you have the heart of this 2023 madcap CLT production, which is directed by Eileen Messina and presented in a heartwarming if different fashion by a fine cast.

“The Golden Egg” has just opened at The Ethel Barrymore Theater. Producer Julia Budder’s townhouse bedroom is the lush opening setting, which hosts the principals in the play, exclusively for our entertainment. A galaxy of unseen but comically and constantly mentioned stars and other luminaries are attending a lavish party downstairs.

James Wicker, played by John Blanchette, is “best friends” with playwright Peter Austin, having worked as the star to his acclaimed play “Flashes” years before. He has arrived early and encounters Gus, played by Sarah Duncan, who is frantically and hilariously collecting coats of the luminaries at the party downstairs. She is star struck, naïve and a wannabe actor.

Wicker’s ego and competitive jealousy make him critical of the actor who ultimately got the lead in Austin’s new play, and he is less than sanguine as he speaks by phone to someone on the West Coast. He trashes the weather in New York, the legitimate theater in general and all of the cast and crew of “The Golden Egg.” Wicker’s phone monologue and interaction with Gus lay the groundwork for the impending arrival of the remaining characters. Actors Blanchette and Duncan shine as they portray polar opposites, the jaded actor who has seen it all and the neophyte who is oblivious to the backstabbing, in-fighting, seamy side of the theater.


Virginia Noyes, played by Jennifer Groover, is the faded star who is attempting a “comeback” away from Hollywood in theater. Her questionable guise finds her shackled to an “ankle bracelet” and required to call her parole officer frequently.  Her obvious drug problems have not left her; what remains is an often volatile, self-absorbed diva who blames others to excuse her own failures. Groover is terrific as she ricochets from difficult to vulnerable with comical precision.

Julia Budder, “The Golden Egg’s” producer, is played by Sophie Messina, who fills in admirably in a last-minute casting change due to unforeseeable circumstances. She gives her character just the right balance as a novice producer with a lack of any real understanding of theater, who tries way too hard to fake it by mouthing hammy malapropisms at every turn.

Brian Pfohl as Peter Austin, the playwright, is perfect as the vulnerable, sensitive, frustrated, expectant sire of “The Golden Egg.” His hopes and dreams rest in the hands of the critics. Ultimately all of the principal characters become the family to the play’s infancy, awaiting the reviews with the tension and excitement of an actual birth. Pfohl’s “soapbox” ode to the theater and later his “Playwright’s Prayer” are alternately poignant and then hilarious, amplifying the playwright’s aspirations and fears. His monologues crystallize the heights and depths of the essence of the theater.

Then there’s CLT’s Ben Simpson, whose take on Frank Finger, the garish, avant-garde British director, is absolutely show-stopping. He commands attention with an outlandish costume and physicality. Regarded world-wide as a wunderkind, he sees himself as a fraud and impostor. He has never had a bad review and turns himself literally inside out in the masochistic wish to be destroyed by the critics.

Finally, there’s Ira Drew, played by Roger Philippon, who, as the critic in the room, has every opportunity to demonstrate the power of a bad review. As someone comments, “Reviews are what’s killing the theater.” But as the print and media reviews come in, Drew gets his comeuppance as the curtain is drawn back on the wizard of flops. Even the critic is critiqued.

The irony of all this is multi-fold. The intensity, angst and drama of awaiting opening night reviews belies the title. Oh my, it’s way more than “only a play.” And the life, death, and rebirth of the play from 1978 to arrival on Broadway in 2014 is prophetic, as is evidenced by the perfect ending to this production.

“It’s Only a Play” runs from Thursday, Jan. 26, through Sunday, Jan. 29, at the Community Little Theatre in Auburn. Shows are 7:30 p.m. except for Sunday at 2 p.m. Go to for times and tickets or call 207-783-0958 to reach the box office.

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