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Jaw-dropping FUN

If showbiz is an incredible high, it's also capable of dishing out the most miserable lows — and most of these come from colleagues as they jockey, jostle and grasp their way up the glass mountain of success. But it's fun and, of course, wonderfully entertaining.

"It's Only a Play" provides an intimate window on that glorious, infectious, insane world. Playing at 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Monday, Dec. 2, 3 and 5, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 4, at Ashland Contemporary Theater, it roars out of the box in the guise of a farce, with actors, producers, critics and hangers-on sucking up to each other and cutting each other's throats, but its author Terrence McNally assures us, after decades inside the business, it's not exaggerated at all and, in fact, is closer to a documentary.

Going out to ACT in the ancient Grange Hall on Tolman Creek Road provides a window on show business at the other end of the spectrum — one that holds some of those moments that Ashlanders love so much, where the familiar faces from around town are on stage doing something entirely outside their norm. It's, well, just a bit stunning.

Lawyer Joe Charter and TV broadcaster-organizer-pundit-author Jeff Golden go back and forth in a testy, strained friendship in "It's Only a Play," reciting lengthy soliloquies that would drive Hamlet to despair. Patrons must drop their jaws and marvel at how these very busy local personalities (and everyone else in the play) can memorize all this and shape their characters for an ephemeral Friday-night audience of only two dozen.

It is heroic. It evokes awe, this local barn theater. Artistic Director Jeannine Grizzard gets up before the play with her little coffer and reminds the audience that ACT is just a nonprofit and needs contributions to make it, so buy brownies at intermission and stuff the box with money (which they do). Then she steps into character to scintillatingly play the rich, uptown producer in "It's Only a Play."

The fun begins at the townhouse party of Peter Austin, played by Golden, where the cast awaits reviews — especially from the make-it-or-break-it New York Times — of the opening-night show of "The Golden Egg." A taxi driver, engagingly played by Mabrie Ormes, finally arrives with one copy of the newspaper, which they all frantically rip to shreds, then Austin reads it to the assembled.

It's not pretty. Austin goes from frantic anticipation to emptying out all hope with a deadpan comment akin to "I don't think he likes it." It's assassination-by-critic and you just have to get the giggles as they take turns trying to read what must be read, with tight-pants butler and actor hopeful Gus (Alonzo Lee Moore) making you split a gut.

McNally draws on some of the pontifical, despairing language he has had to put up with throughout his stellar career: "What possessed the gifted McNally to write two such hokey plays ... . His characters aren't people but counters for his prejudices, predilections and cultural pretentiousness" and "His rather muddy stream of consciousness is periodically interrupted by ... ."

As Frank Finger, played by Peter Wickliffe, reaches to articulate the critic's mean idiocy, he ends up screaming "This is bull——" at the top of his hysterical voice. Then comes the realization that these characters seem like folks from an asylum, the play has been taken from real life at the peak of the profession.

So, the play (within a play) is smoked by a sole critic and, after the ritual of moaning, accusing and grieving, the company does what all theater people do — which is put it back together, fire up the footlights and mount another play ... like ACT has done for two decades.

Tickets cost $15, $12 for seniors and $8 for students. Tickets are available at Paddington Station in Ashland, Grocery Outlet in Medford, online at www.ashlandcontemporarytheatre.org, by calling 541-646-2971 or at the door.