Terrence McNally's IT'S ONLY A PLAY, a revision of a work from the mid-1980s, is a satire on the contemporary state of Broadway. The play takes place at the opening night party of Peter Austin's (Matthew Broderick) unfortunately named play "The Golden Egg," which is being held at the home of the play's sole producer (How long has it been since a play had less than a dozen so-called producers? There are 23 listed in the Playbill for this production.), Julia Budder (Megan Mullaley). The play, farcical in its best moments, sententious in its weakest, takes place in Julia's bedroom. There's a vicious dog in the adjoining bathroom, and a giant opening night party downstairs. The most constant presence in the bedroom (he never leaves the stage) is Austin's best friend, the sitcom star James Wicker (Nathan Lane). There's also Virginia Noyes, the drug-loving washed up Hollywood star looking for a stage comeback (Stockard Channing), the over-praised kleptomaniac British director (Rupert Grint), the critic who wants to be recognized as a playwright (F. Murray Abraham) , and Micah Stock as a young aspiring actor just off the bus who has been hired to take care of the coats (the coats of various celebrities provide running gags throughout the show).
IT'S ONLY A PLAY takes off when there is an avalanche of funny in-jokes and when things stay on the level of farce. Unfortunately McNally also wants the play to be a lament on the current state of Broadway, which he equates with the state of American theatre as a whole. Yes, Broadway has become Las Vegas -- we've known that for years. Yes, few good American plays appear in the commercial theatre and when they do (like Will Eno's THE REALISTIC JONESES last year or Mr. Lane's star vehicle THE NANCE the year before), they don't fare very well. Broadway audiences are seldom serious theatre audiences, nor are they adventurous. However, there are lots of fine American plays being produced in New York -- I've seen four this past month. They're at the non-profits, not on Broadway. Until recently, most of McNally's work has been produced by non-profit theaters, particularly the Manhattan Theatre Club. I found the sermons about the state of the American theatre a bit dishonest -- and you could hear the audience losing interest.
Some of the jokes are about current Broadway casting practices -- using stars of film and television whether or not they are suitable for the roles they play. Yes, people often come to Broadway to see celebrities rather than plays and yes, the casting is often cynical. However, I wonder if McNally and his producer husband Tom Kirdahy aren't guilty of the same practice. The cast of IT'S ONLY A PLAY is a mixed bag of fine comic actors and miscast "names." Nathan Lane holds the show together and is brilliant. The show is at its best when he is quipping and doing his famous "takes." He's the sine qua non for this revival. Stockard Channing is very funny as Virginia Noyes as is F. Murray Abraham as the bitchy critic and would-be playwright. The revelation is newcomer Micah Stock, who plays the coat boy and aspiring actor. The first scene between Stock and Lane is one of the funniest in the play. Stock, a born comedian holds his own against Lane and everyone else in the cast. He's a real find. That's the good news. Rupert Grint of Harry Potter fame is OK but amateurish -- and why all the black makeup around his eyes? Megan Mullaley doesn't know how to project in a big theatre. You could barely understand what she was saying in the mezzanine and she didn't seem to have much of a handle on her role. A better comic actress would have helped. Then there's Matthew Broderick whose career is a mystery to me. Once a decent comic juvenile, Broderick is now a middle-aged cipher with zero charisma. He was a bore in NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT and he is the least interesting cast member here. Unfortunately Broderick has all of the long-winded sermons on the state of the theatre. The play shudders to a halt as he whines his way through them. Obviously the producers thought the Lane-Broderick combination was surefire at the box office. It may be -- the run is just about sold out -- but from an artistic standpoint, he is a mistake.
Jack O'Brien is a master at staging comedy and at finding the right tempo and McNally is one of our best playwrights. Nonetheless, the play needs some tough editing. It could lose fifteen minutes or so and be better for it. When IT"S ONLY A PLAY sticks to farce, it's delightful. It would be better if it gave up the preaching and stuck to the laughs. It's worth seeing for Lane, Channing and for Micah Stock.
IT'S ONLY A PLAY. Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. September 10, 2014.