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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Gerald Schoenfeld


  Rupert Grint, F. Murray Abraham, Stockard Channing and Nathan Lane/ Ph: Joan Marcus

It’s Only a Play, a thin-as-tissue-paper comedy by Terrence McNally that embraces and pokes fun at theater industry traditions and personalities, received an Off-Broadway production three decades ago (then under the title Broadway, Broadway) and then disappeared into the prolific playwright’s archives, never to be heard of again.

Yet some producer recently had the savvy, thoroughly commercial idea to update it to the present day (about half the dialogue consists of just dropping the names of contemporary celebs and current Broadway shows) and revive it on Broadway with a knockout cast including Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick (who unforgettably co-starred in The Producers), Megan Mullally, Stockard Channing and F. Murray Abraham. Also thrown in for good measure are Harry Potter actor Rupert Grint and the relatively unknown Micah Stock.

This has turned out to be quite the year for McNally. His sobering family drama Mothers and Sons received respectable reviews a few months ago. Even if it had a short run, it is likely to live on at countless regional theaters. Lips Together, Teeth Apart, which was supposed to be revived on Broadway five years ago but was called off, is finally being done Off-Broadway by Second Stage.

To be honest, I am not a huge fan of McNally. I actually think the musicals he’s worked on as a book-writer (Ragtime, Kiss of the Spider-Woman, The Full Monty) are far better than his plays. But it is clear that theaters will continue to premiere and revive his works and that audiences will come out for them, especially when well-known actors are involved.

Set at an opening night party at an Upper East Side townhouse, It’s Only a Play consists of a heartfelt but misguided playwright (Broderick), his TV actor pal (Lane), a super-rich producer (Mullally), a diva actress (Channing), a stuck-up but desperate drama critic (Abraham), an oddball, experimental British director (Grint) and an bright-eyed coat check attendant (Stock) all anxiously waiting for the reviews to come out.

The expression “it’s only a play” is intended to comfort those who have back luck in the theater, as if to say, “You’ll move on. There are more important things in life than a bad experience in the theater.” But just try listening to that after being on the receiving end of a nasty review! Stephen Sondheim also wrote a haunting song with the same title for his rarely seen adaptation of Aristophanes’ The Frogs.

While act one offers a good deal of silly if nonsensical gags, plus plenty of references intended mainly for theater insiders, the play essentially collapses in the self-indulgent, overly sentimental second act, where the playwright deals with crushing defeat and envisions himself as a martyr for his art. At an overall length of just under three hours, it’s a wonder that the play wasn’t seriously cut down. After all, it has about as much substance as a Saturday Night Live sketch.

Many of McNally’s plot devices are questionable. He should know full well that critics are not invited to attend opening night parties, especially an acerbic one like Abraham’s character. It’s also doubtful that Lady Gaga and Hillary Clinton would show up to such a party. Also, opening night parties tend to be held at upscale nightclubs and party venues, not at a producer’s townhouse. The silliness also gets out of hand at points, like when Lane’s character refers to Nathan Lane, who apparently exists separately in this universe.

Here and there, McNally offers an interesting, very personal point of view. For instance, at one point, the theater critic suggests that he too is part of the theater community, a notion that the playwright immediately objects to. It’s too bad McNally didn’t further flesh out that position. Likewise, the relationship between the playwright and his friend is full of unresolved anger. But instead of exploring that, it gets buried amidst nonsense.

Director Jack O’Brien could have done a better job at coordinating the broad performances offered by the cast into a cohesive, farcical whole. While Lane is terrific (seriously, when is he not?), everyone else seems uncomfortable in their roles. Grint, who looks ghoulish in his heavy makeup, was an especially weird and ill-advised casting choice. Perhaps he should have taken some advice from his Harry Potter co-star Daniel Radcliffe about how to best make his Broadway debut. Mullally is not as comically effective as she ought to be, and the same goes for Channing. Broderick seems to be doing a tortured parody of his performance as Leo Bloom in The Producers. Abraham is fine enough but has little to work with.


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