‘It’s Only a Play’ But You’ll Like It

Photo by F. Scott Schafer Modern times: Terrence McNally’s 1980s play is updated, with today’s famous names and trending topics.
Photo by F. Scott Schafer
Modern times: Terrence McNally’s 1980s play is updated, with today’s famous names and trending topics.

BY SCOTT STIFFLER   |  Desperately clinging to the notion that they have a Tony-caliber hit on their hands, a group of high-strung theater types puff their chests and lick their wounds in the bedroom of a lavish East Side townhouse as those all-important opening night reviews trickle in.

Downstairs, “the party of the year for the play of the season” swells to capacity, as megastars and uninvited cast members from long-running Broadway hits come and go. This necessitates frequent visits to the bedroom from a just-off-the-bus theater world wannabe tasked with checking coats that serve as calling card sight gags (Tommy Tune’s is a tall and less-than-masculine fur; Lady Gaga’s is a noisy collection of see-through orbs).

McNally’s tale of a turkey is full of delicious hams

Relentlessly funny, breathlessly paced and acted with salty gusto by a cast of high-end Sunday hams, Terrence McNally’s “It’s Only a Play” is a love letter to the theater masquerading as a death threat. By evening’s end, dozens of famous names (Liza!), trending topics (selfies) and media succubi (NYT critic Ben Brantley) are called out and knocked down a few pegs.

Little harm is done, though. In the world of plays about plays, you only zing the ones you love — or at least know about (and in this realm, there’s no greater indignity than escaping public notice). That said, much disdain, possibly sincere, is heaped upon British imports (“The Phantom of the Opera is closing,” screams a newspaper, “Positively last ten years!”), and the occasional dart has fast-acting poison on its tip (such as the ring of humiliating truth about used-to-be-good Faye Dunaway. Ouch!).

With one disappointing exception, the cast is in top form — world-class winners playing straw-grasping losers, for whom the Kryptonite of bad news has only temporary power to wound or weaken. Their misplaced confidence returns with the slightest bit of distance between them and a scathing review or a personal betrayal.

Megan Mullally’s classy but clueless producer Julia Budder (who can’t even quote Sinatra’s “New York, New York” correctly) is a living, breathing ambassador for the never-say-die attitude in the face of mounting disaster. As the sole bankroller of this “300-pound Butterball,” she alone can prevent yet another version of “Riverdance” from kicking her floundering production to the curb. Mullally elevates the show’s most thinly drawn character from simply ditzy to admirably determined.

As sitcom star James Wicker, who’s just flown in from LA to support the playwright, Nathan Lane — always dialing it up and never phoning it in — summons new variations on the slow burn, the knowing look and the sudden realization (especially good is his reaction to the true nature of those snacks he’s been gobbling).

The Playbill gives no indication how former “Harry Potter” actor Rupert Grint came up with his supersized-even-for-this-show portrayal of hypertense director Frank Finger — but if he’s ever seen “The Young Ones,” Mr. Grint needs to hightail it back to London, return his WhatsOnStage award and make a sizable donation to the estate of the late comedic genius Rik Mayall, whose 1980s Britcom character is alive and well and currently appearing eight times a week at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. Due apologies if I’m wrong about that — but otherwise (to steal from McNally), shame, shame, shame on Rupert Grint.

As lead actress Virginia Noyes, a teeter-tottering Stockard Channing fully embodies the stretched skin and pickled liver of a foul-mouthed Hollywood transplant. Nursing a pharmaceutical goody bag and a court-ordered ankle monitor, Channing brilliantly pantomimes a world of crumbling hopes and dreams as the brief but stinging review of Noyes’ performance is read aloud by another.

Playing a theater critic who has no business being in the room, F. Murray Abraham (engrave his Tony now) capers about with glee, fueled by the slightest drop of others’ misfortune. Wakee, wakee Mr. Grint: Abraham’s Ira Drew is masterful and inspired — with physical tics that recall a silent movie villain and a Tex Avery cartoon, boiled down to their essence then reconstructed into something equally unique and memorable. It’s the best performance of the lot, and that’s saying something.

Newcomer Micah Stock, as coat check boy Gus, skillfully milks befuddled for most of the play, then cuts loose with an impromptu musical theater audition that makes the notion of seeing “Wicked” both unwelcome and unnecessary.

Amid this loopy collection of broadly written and played characters, Matthew Broderick’s stiff and sober Peter Austin stands alone, if not exactly tall. Dressed in the duds of a noble bygone era (his father’s top hat, white tie and tails), the self-doubting M.I.A. playwright of “The Golden Egg” finally arrives at his own party. Fresh from a melancholy Broadway walkabout, he delivers the first of many soft-spoken platitudes about the dignity of a life lived in, and for, the theater. His earnestness soon becomes profoundly sad, because from what we learn about “The Golden Egg” as the play progresses, its author probably doesn’t have the chops to attain the theatrical purity he so greatly admires. Not covets, mind you, admires.

For two hours and thirty-five minutes, Peter Austin is the only one in that bunker mentality upstairs bedroom whose steely resolve isn’t a product of selfish desperation. “Plays don’t pop up like toast,” he cautions, although the one he’s in is as well-done and delicious as it gets.


Written by Terrence McNally
Directed by Jack O’Brien
Through January 4, 2015
Tues. & Thus. at 7 p.m.
Wed. & Sat. at 2 p.m. & 8 p.m.
Fri. at 8 p.m.
Sun. at 3 p.m.
At the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
236 W. 45th St. (btw. Broadway & Eighth Ave.)
For tickets ($77–$172.00),
Visit ItsOnlyAPlay.com