Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 9, 2014
It's Only a Play by Terrence McNally. Directed by Jack O'Brien. Scenic design by Scott Pask. Costume design by Ann Roth. Lighting design by Philip Rosenberg. Sound design by Fitz Patton. Hair, wigs & makeup by Campbell Young Associates. Cast: F. Murray Abraham, Matthew Broderick, Stockard Channing, Rupert Grint, Nathan Lane, Megan Mullally, and introducing Micah Stock.
Fair warning: The amount of enjoyment you're likely to derive from all this is directly proportional to how closely you follow the theatre. Though it dates back (in some form) to the late 1970s, It's Only a Play found its primary expression in a 1985-1986 Manhattan Theatre Club run, where it ruthlessly vivisected the tropes, personality, and both the show and business of show business of that time. McNally has rigorously updated the script to cotton to today's names, places, and peccadilloes (even if Ben Brantley's reviews seldom sound quite as vituperative as one does here), while insisting that we laugh continuously at pains, gains, and absurdities as old as the theatre itself.
What other choice is there, after all, when the first 20 minutes are little more than an extended comedy bit for McNally interpreter extraordinaire Nathan Lane? The great star who cut his teeth on McNally comedies of the last three decades (The Lisbon Traviata; Lips Together, Teeth Apart; Love! Valour! Compassion; Dedication, or The Stuff of Dreams) but is best known to Broadway audiences for his tour-de-force turn as Max Bialystock in The Producers could not better prepare you for the frivolity to come than by entering Scott Pask's gleaming, gorgeous Manhattan townhouse set and commandeering it as if he owns the place.
His character, James Wicker, doesn't, but he might as well. A TV star visiting his native New York to witness the debut of his best friend's new play, The Golden Egg, James has just come from the theater to the home of its dilettante producer for the opening-night party. Just one problem: he hated it. Loathed it. As in, he thinks it's turkey bad. (He describes how his own gobbler impression left Bernadette Peters in stitches.) Not that he lets on to Gus (Micah Stock), the evening's hired coat-check guy who's an aspiring "actor-slash-singer-slash-dancer-slash-comedian-slash-performance artist-slash-mime" spending his first night in the city, but get him on the phone to Hollywood and James unloads about everything from the set ("a tilted disk") to the cast to... well, everything else.
Everything else is about to hit the fan, too, as the other guests of honor arrive: the leading lady, Virginia Noyes (Stockard Channing); the British wunderkind director, Frank Finger (Rupert Grint); the producer, Julia Budder (Megan Mullally); the poison-pen critic, Ira Drew (F. Murray Abraham); and the playwright himself, Peter Austin (Matthew Broderick). In the grand stage tradition, they're all excited about what they've done and are all expecting raves (though Frank hopes that, for the first time in his career, he'll be panned), and it doesn't take long for realityand the reviewsto hit.
There's nothing weighty about It's Only a Play, howeverit's feather-light, even as it makes you reconsider the artifice of everything you see onstage. Jokes range from the obvious ("It's the cast of Matilda" / "I can't understand a word they're saying") to the lacerating ("I don't do musicals. Ever since Mamma Mia!, I said to myself, 'Why bother?'") to the just-plain meta (James, bristling from being found less masculine than a certain flamboyant Hairspray star: "Nathan Lane I could accept, but Harvey Fierstein?"), and at times come close to being gratuitous name-checking. But, if the comedy carpet bombing can be oppressive, the vast majority of what hits you is wonderfully funny: a cultural love letter that's utterly lacking outward sentimentality.
That O'Brien maintains this atmosphere despite a cast you can't help but love is one of his greatest accomplishments here. Nearly everyone is terrific, starting with Lane, who's in top, pinpoint-precise form as the man who doesn't want to admit how much he needs the theatre that made him famous. He presides over the action with unmatched comic authority he can transform instantaneously into serious (well, semi-serious) empathy when required. Channing is start-to-finish brittle hilarity as Virginia, whose drug-fueled ambition considerably exceeds her grasp of pretty much anything. Ira's an impossible roleMcNally has no love for critics, it seemsbut Abraham makes it as bruising and winning as he can.
In their Broadway debuts, Stock and Grint hint at outstanding stage careers to come. Stock's deadpan, outsider cluelessness is an excellent counterbalance to the wise-cracking jadedness everyone else depicts with such crushed resignation (and his insane rendition of Wicked's "Defying Gravity" is a true highlight befitting an oblivious navel-gazer in the making). Grint is even more a discovery. Though known by countless millions as Ron from the Harry Potter movies, he's completely unrecognizable here in some of Ann Roth's most outlandish costumes and behind a wall of makeup and hair product, but also crafts a truly compelling figure who's believable at drawing his ideas from his outrageous bad judgment rather than genuine inspiration, and nails each of Frank's myriad, self-flagellating sight gags.
Though Mullally is ideally cast as Julia, she strains at projecting the proper naïveté beneath her preternaturally prim exterior, and doesn't seem quite as organic in this world as many of her costars. Even more at sea is Broderick, who's a wet lump as Peter and doesn't seem interested in doing much besides regurgitating the nebbishy, moaning milquetoast he's played on Broadway in recent years in Nice Work If You Can Get It, The Philanthropist, The Odd Couple, and, most effectively, The Producers (opposite Lane).
This is, perhaps, the biggest misstep. Peter is our anchor point, the one completely earnest person onstage; he needs to look out of place, but not because he's constipated at a party with no working bathrooms, but because he believes too deeply in an ideal everyone around him has abandoned. We might not get Peter, but we sure get McNally, who quite obviously still believes in the "two boards and a dream" philosophy that attracts so many to show business. It's not all prettyheck, maybe none of it isbut it's as homey as meatloaf and mashed potatoes when you get it right. And, overall, this It's Only a Play gets it very, very right indeed.