It’s Only a Play. Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre (see Broadway). By Terrence McNally. Directed by Jack O’Brien. With F. Murray Abraham, Matthew Broderick, Stockard Channing, Rupert Grint, Nathan Lane, Megan Mullally, Micah Stock. Running time: 2hrs 40mins. One intermission.
It’s Only a Play: In brief
A neophyte playwright (Matthew Broderick) anxiously awaits reviews of his Broadway debut in Terrence McNally's bitchy but affectionate homage to show folk, which appeared in various incarnations at Manhattan Theatre Club in 1982 and ’85. This revival, directed by Jack O'Brien, also stars the great Nathan Lane, F. Murray Abraham and Harry Potter alum Rupert Grint.
It’s Only a Play: Theater review by David Cote
“Tonight, everyone’s a critic,” says TV actor James Wicker (Lane), in town to celebrate the Broadway debut of his playwright friend Peter (Broderick). They’re at the opening-night party—an A-list fete thrown by lead producer Julia Budder (Megan Mullally)—and all are nervously awaiting the reviews. Air kisses and extravagant compliments fly, but everyone is mentally tearing the show to pieces. As I like to say, the only people harsher than critics are the ones acting in the show or paying to see it. Wicker’s line is one of the few honest remarks in Terrence McNally’s otherwise cliché-filled It’s Only a Play. Mostly plotless and spun from the sketchiest of stereotypes and hoariest of showbiz prejudices, this insider trifle is too long, too shallow and not nearly funny enough.
Last seen Off Broadway in 1985 at Manhattan Theatre Club, this compendium of digs at sadistic reviewers, drug-addled divas and Pollyanna producers probably earned its laughs on a smaller, cattier scale. But pumped up to fill the Schoenfeld at top ticket prices, featuring miscast celebrities and a revised script force-fed topical references, the satire sags by the two-hour mark. But that doesn’t stop McNally from airing every grievance and petty peeve he’s accumulated in the intervening 29 years. There are the customary paeans to the nobility of theater artists and their sacrifices for the wicked stage, but the evening’s dominant mood is bitter, out-of-touch self-regard. Practically the only member of the theater world who escapes insult is the audience—unless you count the experience of sitting through such weak tea.
The first 15 minutes are genuinely promising, as dependably warm Lane dishes with a millennial twink called Gus (Micah Stock), who’s working the party as coat-check boy. For a brief time, you think you’re in for a jolly night of boulevard comedy; but then other characters enter. In a farce, each successive entrance should ratchet up the laughs and zaniness, but this cast has the opposite effect. Stockard Channing’s coke-snorting, ankle-bracelet-wearing train wreck of a leading lady is stiff and stolid when she should be manic and fluid. Mullally does her helium ditz act, making the most of misquoted truisms. As snotty Brit director Frank Finger, Rupert Grint seems to have wandered in from a Tim Burton movie, with heavy eye shadow and a garishly patterned suit.
And then there’s Broderick, who for years has been turning in robotic, chirpy performances that have nothing to do with the character he’s playing or the show he’s in, more lifeless iterations on Leopold Bloom. Broderick doesn’t act so much as have his Madame Tussaud’s likeness wheeled onstage with hidden speakers. Director Jack O’Brien does what he can to simulate sparkle and frisson. At best, he makes sure Lane is the sane and relatable center of this circus, with everyone around him a hysterical gargoyle.
The reviewer can’t win with this one. If you tell the truth about this lazy, whiny, sporadically funny bitchfest, you come across as insulted, since McNally portrays critics in the usual way: as frustrated artists and gleeful sadists. The greatest volume of venom and spittle is reserved, naturally, for the lead critic of The New York Times (who, for everyone’s sake, will remain nameless). Unlike the blunt put-down thrown at Frank Rich in the 1985 script (“You’re full of shit”) his present-day counterpart comes in for a lengthier, more specific string of abuse, repeated three times for good measure. The flip side, just laughing along with McNally’s tired punch lines, puts you in danger of currying favor, somewhat like Ira Drew (F. Murray Abraham, suave and cutting as always), the critic who buzzes around the margins of the party, a frustrated artist and simpering parasite.
If you’re a show person of any sort—especially if you’ve been out of circulation for decades—you may get a hearty laugh at the low-hanging fruit. If not, It’s Only a Play may seem alien and awkward, a hybrid of 1980s sitcom schmaltz and 2014 Gawker trolling. Either way, it’s a night of shameless, attenuated playwright navel-gazing. In fact, it couldn’t be any more navel-gazing, unless Scott Pask’s set were a 40-foot-high foam-and-satin reproduction of Terrence McNally’s navel, upon which actors could lounge and bounce between one-liners.
For a play in which mixed reviews (and one major, absurdly unprofessional pan) kill a show (and maybe also Peter’s career), the big irony is that it doesn’t matter what any of us say. It’s Only a Play is raking in more than a million bucks a week based on star wattage and the public’s evident hunger for a big, dumb comedy. Its brickbats and backbiting have nothing to do with the production’s box-office or marketing reality. Instead, they come across as antiquated and quaint—but not in a charming way. Only a play? It’s hardly even that.—Theater review by David Cote
THE BOTTOM LINE Lane is sweet, but Broderick flounders in this toothless showbiz comedy.
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote