REVIEW: It’s Only A Play, Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre ✭✭✭

Rupert Grint, left, Megan Mullally, Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane and Stockard Channing star in "It's Only a Play" on Broadway. (Joan Marcus)
Rupert Grint, left, Megan Mullally, Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane and Stockard Channing star in “It’s Only a Play” on Broadway. Photo: Joan Marcus

It’s Only A Play
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
30 October 2014

Nathan Lane. Stockard Channing. Rupert Grint. Megan Mullally. F Murray Abraham. Matthew Broderick. With a cast of such luminaries, what could possibly go wrong? Especially when they are not doing Ibsen or Chekhov (not that there would be anything wrong with that) but a “new” play from the pen of multi-award winning Terrence McNally – and a comedy to boot? And it’s directed by Jack O’Brien, famous for his Tony Award winning direction of the plays (Stoppard’s) Coast Of Utopia and (Shakespeare’s) Henry IV? Really? What could go wrong?

The premiere/revival of McNally’s play, It’s Only A Play, directed by O’Brien, now playing at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on Broadway provides the answer to that question with clarity and distinction.

This is the third time McNally’s play has sought a Broadway outing. He has revised and updated it for this outing. Except in two respects, it could not hope for a better cast. It certainly could not expect a better set design (Scott Pask provides a glamorous, glorious Art Deco apartment) or better costumes (Ann Roth who does an especially good line in opening night attire here). Indeed, everything about the technical support is first class.

But for a third revision, McNally’s play has a plot that is the theatrical equivalent of “wafer thin”. A new play has just opened on Broadway and the star, the author, the writer, the writer’s best friend, and the producer anxiously await the reviews. Add a wanna be playwright and a wanna be actor, dozens of “in” quips about real stars and conventional “wisdom” about the theatre and how it works and that’s about it. The reviews are not good and gloom descends. There is a “twist” at the end but all that does is highlight the triviality of the piece.

Sharp, sometimes vile, sometimes witty, repartee is the whole point of the evening. McNally’s play doesn’t really know what it is, apart from an occasion for some satirical humour about actors, theatre critics, writers and the fickle, fleeting nature of success. It spends a lot of time dropping names of stars who don’t appear and mercilessly roasting them, vivisecting the chief critic of the New York Times and sniping at pretty much anyone with any connection to the theatre. And if it kept to that, it would be an almost Wildean treat – frothy, sparkling hilarity.

But there is a lame attempt in the second Act to add some depth, to explore questions of friendship and honesty, to create some poignant moments, to discuss important questions about the theatre. It’s a mis-step and threatens to derail the hilarity train.

There are, however, a lot of laughs to be had with the caricatures and McNally certainly knows how to carve a cracking, waspish one-liner. You need a lot of knowledge about Broadway, its history and stars, to get all the “in” jokes – I particularly liked Nathan Lane’s character’s pained admission that he liked The Addams Family. But if you didn’t know Lane starred in that musical which, unaccountably in my view, got poor reviews, you may have missed the joke. And many of the others which are delivered but not set up in the play itself.

But some of the choices the author makes are troubling. Why does the fate of the entire production, cast and crew, rest on a review from the New York Times? Good reviews do not mean a piece of writing or a production is or is not a success. Neither do bad ones. Audiences decide – and given that the theatre is for the audiences, that is as it should be. Les Miserables and We Will Rock You hardly garnered great reviews when they first opened but they ran and ran. Critics don’t have, and should not have, the power to close shows, condemn work to oblivion. Yet, this is the premise upon which Its Only A Play proceeds.

If McNally’s purpose here was to be satirical about the power of critics, it was not achieved. He makes excellent jokes about them but he embraces their power with an enthusiasm which seems bizarre. And his characters’ reactions to the damning (but hilarious) fictional Ben Brantley review do not exactly suggest that McNally’s view of the future of theatre is rosy.

Still, Jack O’Brien runs with the material and wrings all the laughs there are to be had (and some that shouldn’t be laughs) with deft, clear direction that draws as much attention as possible away from the flaws in the play. The stellar line-up of performers assists him in that sleight of hand.

Micah Stock makes his Broadway debut as part of the illustrious above the title cast and more than does his part. It’s a very winning performance of a frankly unbelievable character. He plays Gus, the newly arrived, out of work, actor working as a busboy of sorts at the home of the producer of new Broadway play. It’s news to him that theatre people don’t call each other “sir” and prefer “darling”, “sweetheart” and similar appellations, yet he is so steeped in theatre lore that he can, when required, turn on a dazzlingly funny version of “Defying Gravity” to lift the spirits of the assembled throng.

Stock is quite excellent. He makes the most of all the comic opportunities offered and there are little touches (such as his pidgeon-toed stance and penchant for correcting his attire) which reveal the thought and detail that has gone into his performance. As the evening progresses, and Gus becomes more at ease with his surroundings and those he is serving, Stock lets the character become gayer and gayer, culminating in his silly Wicked turn – a true highlight of the evening.

Stockard Channing triumphs as the Hollywood reject, the child actor who had cosmetic surgery after a bad review of her turn as Baby June in Gypsy, a broken, drug quaffing, ankle-bracelet wearing murder parolee who, essentially, answers the question “Whatever happened to Baby Jane?”. She went to Broadway to star in a new play in the hope of a career revival.

Channing is glorious. She delivers vicious barbs with casual glee, plunders the various levels of depression and maniacal fury which mark out her faded glamour character and, against the odds, manages to earn sympathy when the reviews skewering her performance are read out. She is the mistress of the pause, the quick darting look that hooks a laugh and she can hold and extend a laugh like a true vaudevillian.

Megan Mullally shows what a wonderful actress she is with her robust, charming, and completely nuts portrayal of the simple, incredibly rich Producer who backed the play which has just opened. It’s a wonderfully whole character and fizzing with frenzied fun. She looks fantastic and really delivers the goods.

F. Murray Abraham has perhaps the hardest role: a theatre critic that no one likes. (Does anyone like a theatre critic?) He has the added misfortune of having offended pretty much the rest of the cast, one way or another, sometimes viciously; as well, he has written a new play he is desperate to get produced but to which he is afraid to put his name; and he is bald, but trying to hide it with a toupee. Abraham takes it all in his stride, even the plate of lasagne that Patti Lupone dumps on his head (offstage, you understand, and not in real life). Clipped, precise, an exemplar of comic timing and perfect diction, Abraham creates a great comic creature.

On the other hand, Matthew Broderick gives a great impersonation of a robotic tree. He appears not so much to be phoning in his performance as delivering it by carrier pigeon. His monotone delivery, punctuated by his trademark quirky squeak, does nothing to enliven the play. He throws away more laughs than he lands. It is a curious, disinterested and boring performance. It might be argued that he is doing what he does deliberately, to lampoon what great bores authors really are in real life; but, if that were so, one would expect clarity about that. (And, anyway, authors rarely are boring). But there was no such clarity. Stupendously disappointing.

Rupert Grint is miscast as the famous British theatre director who can do no wrong in the eyes of theatre critics. He is a tumbleweed of angst and offhand arrogance, but not very believable. Or interesting. There is a sequence with a puppet that is his high note, but he otherwise personifies the lack in lacklustre. His hideous opening night outfit is the best part of his performance, although I doubt any of the current crop of wunderkind British directors would be seen dead in such an outfit.

The night belongs to Nathan Lane who is hilariously vicious as James Wicker, an actor who turned down the lead role in the play written by his best friend because he thought it was a dud. He drops comic gems and malicious slurs with relish; a human laughter grenade launcher. And then, when the play takes its more sombre turn, he masterfully shifts gears. Lane is in crisp, superb form and the play is at its best when he and Channing are volleying barbed repartee.

It’s Only A Play is an unashamed star vehicle meant to lure audiences to see stars do their thing – all six members of the cast, including the debutante, appear above the title of the play on the marquee. Hamlet’s advice that the Play is the thing is not heeded here. Without the stars, this would not be on Broadway. Despite the fact that there is nothing only about being a play, It’s Only A Play seeks to show otherwise.

But thanks to Lane, Channing, Mullally, Abraham and Stock it certainly shows how tremendously funny skilled actors can be.

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