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A CurtainUp Review
It's Only a Play
By Elyse Sommer
Answer: Re-unite Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick to play an actor who abandoned the stage for a money making TV series and a playwright whose play presciently named The Golden Egg is opening on Broadway.
Since Lane and Broderick are indeed playing actor James Wicker and playwright Peter Austin, it doesn't really matter what I or any other critic says about Terence McNally's update of the 1986 backstage comedy It's Only A Play which was already an update of a 1982 one. That would apply even if this review were as scathing as McNally's version for New York Times critic Ben Brantley which happens to be one of the play's funniest segments. The chance to see Lane and Broderick together on a Broadway stage again has sent ticket sales soaring even before the opening. The press performance I attended was standing room only.
And so, to paraphrase one of New Yorks most colorful former Mayors Ed Koch, how are they doing? Has McNally's update finally given his cri de coeur for keeping the theater alive while also poking fun at those who are (or would like to be) part of that world its just due?
As for McNally's play. This is my first viewing of It's Only A Play. I therefore can't compare this latest rendition to its 17-performance Off-Broadway run in 1986, which was already an update of a 1982 Off-Off-Broadway production seen by even fewer people. It's nevertheless easy to see why the butts of McNally's jokes and the details about how opening nights played out then had to be brought up-to-date. It's also easy to see why the need for theater goers to be conversant with all the abundantly dropped names of people and plays probably contributed to the flop-length run despite considerable praise from thos3 who saw it. Maybe the superstar casting (one of McNally's satirical targets) and the social media's proliferation making for heightened celebrity know-how will continue to fill every seat in the Schoenfeld Theatre through, and perhaps beyond, its January closing date.
Though the caveat that a good many of the jokes will go over the heads of the celebrity challenged still applies, McNally is an expert farceur. The new It's Only a Play also benefits from several other fun to watch performances.
Stockard Channing is a hoot as Virginia Noyes, The Golden Egg's leading lady. The pharmaceutical loving Noyes prompts the ever ready with a back stab Wicker to comment "They drummed her out of Hollywood and she came crawling back to Broadway." He expands on this with "The theater has become the Statue of Liberty for movie actors" paraphrasing its motto as "Give us your tired, your poor, your washed up, your strung out."
Also very funny is F. Murray Abraham as Ira Drew, an acerbic critic who never forgets what he wrote about an actor though he does forget to get their names right. He's also a closet playwright.
On the other hand, Rupert Grint doesn't quite live up to any expectations fans of his Harry Potter films probably have. The funniest and most memorable aspect of his role as Frank Fingers, the aptly named kleptomaniac and avant-garde British director, is as another target for Lane's wickedly sardonic Wicker ("you're talking to someon who actually sat through his all-male Medea at BAM. I took my poor mother. I think it's what killed her"). Ann Roth, one of this production's unseen stars, makes Fingera visual gut buster with a weird grisaille patterned suit. Roth also deserves a special hand for the non-verbal comic contributions provided by the guests' outer wear that Stock's Gus keeps bringing up from the main floor.
Megan Mullaly's Julia Budder made me wish I could have seen Christine Baranski when she played this part in 1986. Mullally would have been well served if the otherwise excellent director Jack O'Brien had persuaded her to deliver her lines in a lower pitch. This is the second time in a week that I've seen an actress succumb to shrillness.
Last, and unfortunately least enjoyable, to arrive in the play-within's bedroom is Matthew Broderick as the author of the play everyone has high hopes for — which doesn't necessarily mean for its success. The sing-song voice and stance of someone with a stiff neck that worked like a charm for Broderick's "I Want to Be a Producer" here simply seems stiff. He starts out well enough with a droll, self-deprecating admission that hearing people yelling "Author! Author!" when he walked into the party it wasn't his dream come true but for Tom Stoppard he was right behind him. After that, his very presence seems to have the effect of a balloon losing its air. In fairness to Broderick, McNally is largely to blame for this since he saddles this character with much too lengthy diatribes about his more serious (and, alas, preachy) concerns.
The play gets back on its comic track for the second act's opening, with the cast members taking turns reading Ben Brantley-à-la-McNally evisceration of everyone connected with The Golden Egg. While the various characters come and go, fortunately Nathan Lane's Wicker is almost always on. And it's as an insider joke fest and a farce, that It's Only a Play is best. As a sorrowful memorial to a by-gone theatrical world, mostly by Broderick as McNally's stand-in, it's a kvetch that seems blind to the fact that this production has itself embraced all these complaints, while some fine American plays are indeed being done on Broadway and high profile off-Broadway stages — including Mr. Lane's own exemplary The Nance which is happily reaching non-traditional audiences via television.
The gossipy name dropping is fun and the funny business has much of the audience in stitches. Still, I left the theater wishing that it really were more of a play.