Outside, on a shingle hanging from the marquee of the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, Ben Brantley is quoted as saying: “Deliriously Dishy…It’s a Hit.” But inside, on the stage, Brantley is quoted as saying: “This is the kind of play that gives playwriting a bad name.”
Both Brantleys happen to be right.
Yes, the first is from the actual review by the New York Times critic of the star-studded revival of Terrence McNally’s backstage comedy “It’s Only A Play” at the Schoenfeld, while the second is from the fake Brantley review of the play-within-the-play, entitled “The Golden Egg.”
But what better way to describe a show whose first half hour is the funniest I’ve seen all season, and whose overlong second act is among the dullest? I’ll credit Nathan Lane for the first, and blame Terrence McNally for the latter.
“It’s Only A Play” takes place in the townhouse of the producer of “The Golden Egg” on the night of its Broadway opening – in the first act, the characters wait for the reviews; in the second act, they react to them. Nathan Lane plays James Wicker, best friend of the playwright, who has flown in from the West Coast for the opening. James turned down the play because he has become a star of a TV series—but also because he thought the play was a turkey. He is the first guest to enter the upstairs room, in search of a phone (the updated script has him explaining that his cell phone is broken), where he meets the temporary party help, Gus, a newcomer to New York (portrayed by newcomer Micah Stock, making an impressive Broadway debut), who describes himself variously as “an interdisciplinary theater artist” and “an actor-slash-singer-slash-dancer-slash-comedian-slash-performance artist-slash-mime. I have a black belt in karate and can operate heavy farm equipment.”
One by one the other party guests enter this inner sanctum (while the real party is supposed to be going on elsewhere in the house.) Stockard Channing plays Virginia Noyes, a washed-up, coked-up Hollywood movie star who took the part in the play to revive her career, and feels guilty that her ankle bracelet went off during her performance.
Megan Mullally is the producer Julia Budder, a naïve, well-meaning Mrs. Malaprop who has more money than taste. Rupert Grint from the Harry Potter movies makes his Broadway debut as Sir Frank Finger, the manic bad boy wonder British theater director, wearing the same kind of clashing plaid suit as the batty Mr. Wormwood in Matilda, and whining that he is always praised, no matter how awful and way-out his direction.
Eventually, Matthew Broderick enters in top hat as the hapless, idealistic playwright Peter Austin. Given the excitement that the duo of Lane and Broderick generated in both “The Producers” and “The Odd Couple,” it’s hard not to feel disappointed at Broderick’s oddly stiff and distant performance, as if his entire body was filled with Botox. In fairness, Broderick is saddled with long, sincere speeches that inveigh against what Broadway has become and long for what it once was. (“We’ve let Broadway stop mattering….”)
Rounding out the seven-member cast is F. Murray Abraham, who came to fame playing the villainous Salieri in Amadeus, and who is cast here as Ira Drew, McNally’s acid portrait of a theater critic who is crashing the party, a corrupt, untalented, self-regarding parasite who secretly yearns to be a playwright himself.
These generic pot-shots are easier to take than the zingers that the incessantly name-dropping McNally lobs at actual people. Brantley is called “a pretentious, diva-worshipping, British-ass-kissing twat” three times. McNally has replenished his 35-year-old insider play with references to the latest celebrities (Shia LaBeouf, Alec Baldwin, Rosie O’Donnell, James Franco), yet seems to relish trafficking in mean-spirited insults towards such veterans as Faye Dunaway, Rita Moreno, Frank Langella and Tommy Tune; what have they ever done to him? He also indulges in a joke at the expense of older theatergoers; without them, “It’s Only A Play” would have box office like “The Golden Egg.” At the same time, despite the present-day setting and the almost desperate-seeming addition of topical references — selfies; sexting; chat rooms; a nearly bizarre listing of almost two dozen first-rate contemporary (mostly non-Broadway) playwrights such as Lynn Nottage, Christopher Shinn, and Julia Cho — the premise of the play is so out-of-date as to make McNally seem stuck in the past. (As if to prove this, he throws in “Monica Lewinsky” as the punch line to the list of playwrights.)
There are plenty of jokes that worked for me, even after the first half hour. But the hearty laughter began to seem hollow, and even haunting, when I thought how much people are paying to see exactly the kind of show that the playwright – the fictional playwright depicted in “It’s Only A Play” – laments.
It’s Only a Play
At the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater
By Terrence McNally; directed by Jack O’Brien; sets by Scott Pask; costumes by Ann Roth; lighting by Philip Rosenberg; sound by Fitz Patton; hair, wigs and makeup design by Campbell Young Associates;.
. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, including one intermission.
Cast: F. Murray Abraham (Ira Drew), Matthew Broderick (Peter Austin), Stockard Channing (Virginia Noyes), Rupert Grint (Frank Finger), Nathan Lane (James Wicker), Megan Mullally (Julia Budder) and Micah Stock (Gus P. Head).
Tickets: $77.00 – $172.00
It’s Only A Play is scheduled to run through January 4.