It is wise, I have learned, never to anticipate what one is to see onstage on any given night. A play is, after all, a mercurial thing; it is different every night. But it was hard not to anticipate just a bit when going to see the opening night of Theatre in the Park‘s latest show, Terrence McNally‘s It’s Only a Play. After all, this is a show written by a well-known and respected playwright, being performed by an established company, by actors who are seasoned and well known in the Raleigh acting circle. This, I thought to myself, ought to be pretty good.

Which only goes to show that one should never anticipate. In writing It’s Only a Play, Terrence McNally has committed a cardinal sin. He has written a comedy that isn’t funny.

While I cannot put my finger on why, exactly, the audience opening night seemed to sense this, too. Opening night at TIP tends to be a gala affair, and they are usually sell-out nights. This night, however, the house was only maybe half-full. I had to wonder where everybody was. But the curtain came up, and we were off — that is, after a fashion. This show starts very slowly. One actor enters a swank New York penthouse, picks up a phone and begins talking. Very slow. Not the kind of grabber that some comedies accomplish. But slow starts usually mean a faster pace later in Act I. Here, the show tends to simply fizzle out altogether.

McNally has attempted to write a play about a play. This is always a difficult task. McNally uses seven characters. The first to enter is Gus (Justin Brent Johnson), a still-wet-behind-the-ears newby on his first night in New York, playing his first gig as a hired servant for what is supposed to be the biggest show, and biggest post-show party, on Broadway this season. He is using the apartment of the producer, Julia Budder (Page Purgar), as a cloakroom. As Gus goes about his duties, enter stage and screen actor James Wicker (Rob Jenkins), best friend of the playwright, who turned down the starring role in tonight’s show, despite the fact that his best friend wrote the part specifically for him. Next comes Virginia Noyes (Lynda Clark), an aging, drug-addled, has-been of a good actress who left New York for Hollywood, only to return with her tail between her legs. She couldn’t get arrested in Hollywood. Not so here; she has a purse full of every drug you could imagine and has to wear an “ankle-bracelet” as part of the terms of her parole. It embarrassed her no end when it went off in the middle of the show. The next to arrive is the producer herself, Julia, who is looking everywhere for her friend and playwright for the night, Peter Austin (Brian Westbrook). Peter is AWOL. No one has seen him since before the play was over. Next, in a surprise appearance, comes Ira Drew (Larry Evans), one of the nastiest of the New York critics’ circle and the man assigned to critique the performance. What he is doing here is anyone’s guess. Next to arrive is the director, a Brit named Frank Finger (Ira David Wood IV), who is, strangely enough, internally begging for a flop, because even after several extremely outre productions, the world at large bills him as “absolute genius.” It’s beginning to wear on his nerves. Finally comes the playwright himself, Peter, who has been out walking the theatre district. He is moony-eyed over being a newly-established playwright, and is waiting on pins and needles for the reviews to come in.

It takes the better part of the hour for everyone to assemble; by this time, we are bored. The audience isn’t laughing. There are smatterings occasionally, but not everyone is laughing at the same thing. Sometimes a spark of laughter is heard from over here, sometimes from over there. But never across the house. By the time Act I is over, the entirety of the cast is on their knees, praying (which ain’t funny), and so are we. We’re praying this act will be over soon, and Act II will pick up.

Everything for this show has been meticulously prepared. The set is to die for (designed by Nathaniel Conti), costumes are perfect, high-society evening wear (courtesy Christine McInnis), lights and sound are spot-on (thanks to Lucas Barrick and Kenny Hertling), but the actors are dying up there. Please let Act II be better!

And so it is, but not by much. Virginia’s high-society facade is slipping, James learns that his television show was just canceled by ABC, and the reviews are deadly. Such nastiness has seldom been heard from the critics. They are, without fail, dismal. Peter is in the depths of despair. Frank, who now has his disaster, suddenly finds himself torn; he has an argument with himself by using the prop of a sock puppet, and he and the puppet do a knock-down, drag-out of a fight that propels him bodily across the floor. Unfortunately, this entire sequence has been lifted in toto from a show TIP has just closed in April, Hand of God. Wood makes the exact same moves he did then. They were funny then.

By the time the show is over, the applause seems to be more from relief than from anything else. It is difficult to see who is the more relieved, the audience or the cast.

Terrence McNally has written some truly note-worthy plays, plenty of which have made it to a Triangle stage: The Lisbon Traviata, Love! Valour! Compassion!, Master Class, and Mothers and Sons, to name a few. But this play, to quote from the play itself, is a turkey. A bomb. A flop. OUCH! I have been at this trade for almost thirty years, and this one is in a class by itself. These actors struggled valiantly to keep this thing afloat, but it takes on water throughout the performance. By the time the final curtain rings down, this ship has disappeared beneath the waves.

It’s Only a Play continues through Sunday, August 26. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.