Playwright Terrence McNally skewers, eviscerates, and satirizes every aspect of producing a Broadway play in the tepid, mostly lackluster revival of his 1986 Off-Broadway show, It’s Only a Play. Nothing is sacred from his barbs—Disney musicals, self-centered stars, Hollywood actors in limited runs, exorbitant union costs, and more. McNally has updated parts of the script so today’s theater audience, maybe not too familiar with theatrical history name-dropping, which is rampant in the production, won’t have to be scratching their heads for total understanding.
The show has been a sellout since previews began in August because of the stellar group of actors, led by Nathan Lane (who is only in the play through January 4, 2015 when Martin Short takes over his role). There is Matthew Broderick, Stockard Channing, Megan Mullally, F. Murray Abraham and, making a splashing Broadway debut, Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley from the Harry Potter movies). Micah Stock, also making his Broadway introduction, rounds out the cast as a naïve, just-off-the-bus, would-be actor.
The premise of the show is a cast party held by the rich, neophyte producer Julia Budder (Megan Mullally) in her opulent townhouse for playwright Peter Austin (Matthew Broderick). The action takes place upstairs where members of the creative team, and others, gather. There is the former theatrical thespian James Wicker (Nathan Lane) now ensconced on television, a Hollywood starlet Virginia Noyes (Stockard Channing) seeking a comeback on The Great White Way, mean-spirited theater critic Ira Drew (F. Murray Abraham), an enfant terrible director Frank Finger (Rupert Grint), and a young actor Gus Head (Micah Stock) coat-checking for the night.
At first It’s Only a Play is funny and entertaining. Nathan Lane’s comic timing and shenanigans are priceless. His bantering with Micah Stock, who’s main function throughout the production is bringing guests’ coats upstairs (and commenting on the attire), is quite amusing. Soon, other members of the ensemble appear onstage, constantly commenting and trash-talking about their friends and colleagues. Yet, after a while, the jokes and set-ups are few and far between and the show becomes more humdrum and wearisome. The actors, almost all seasoned professionals, are just not served well by McNally’s script. The exception is Rupert Grint, who makes a memorable showing, upstaging his more accomplished co-stars.
McNally, a multi-Tony Award winner, can write wickedly funny vignettes such as the second act opener, which is simply the recitation by a number of characters of a devastating, godawful review of the show’s play as might be written by New York Times head theater critic, Ben Brantley. But as a cohesive whole It’s a Play is one of the playwright’s lesser efforts.
Director Jack O’Brien has almost a spread offense style, placing the actors strategically around the stage, but not having them necessarily interact. They speak their lines, yet sometimes it felt like the characters were reciting self-contained monologues instead of being integrated into a well-balanced whole. O’Brien could also have prodded Matthew Broderick to show more vitality in his role.
It’s a Play, for star gazers only.