The audience at the Schoenfeld Theatre at the packed-house performance of “It’s Only a Play” greeted line after line with uproarious laughter and waves of applause. The gifted playwright Terrence McNally has certainly outdone himself with this one; and there is no end to the fun in the newly revised and updated version of the play that was first produced by the Manhattan Theater Club in 1985. Jack O’Brien directs the brilliant all-star cast with great style, keeping the action moving forward at a fast pace.
Nathan Lane gives the performance of his life up to this moment in time as a disgruntled neurotic TV-series-come-Broadway actor. His comic genius with these great McNally one-liners is part of what is responsible for the on-going laughter. The deadpan asides and rampant mood swings bring to mind the old time genius comics like Jackie Gleason and Bert Lahr. Broderick, going at it quietly in a low-key style with great reticence, is successful as a kind of Bud Abbott straight man to Lane’s Lou Costello antic rageful panic attacks. According to Playbill, Terrence McNally more than once grabbed Broderick by the shoulders during rehearsals and shouted, “You’re playing me, damn it!”
“It’s Only a Play” has a magnificent, almost Madame de Pompadour, upper east side set. The posh upstairs boudoir and giant anteroom shoe closet sporting dozens of expensive high heels, belong to Julia Budder, (Megan Mullally,) the main producer of a play titled “The Golden Egg” written by a playwright called Peter Austin, (Mathew Broderick.) Megan Mullaly is perfect as the ditsy wealthy blonde first-time-out producer.
The opening night party for “The Golden Egg” is hosted downstairs by ‘Julia,’ and some of her unseen noisy famous guests include Denzel Washington, Al Pacino, and Lady Gaga. No stone is left unturned in terms of the vicious, hysterical yet sophisticated comic zingers targeted at such celebrities as Faye Dunaway, Barbara Streisand, Tommy Tune, Bernadette Peters, Liza Minnelli, Mayor de Blasio, and Pope Francis. At one point in the play Nathan Lane, who plays a Broadway actor named James Wicker now trapped in a TV series, rakes both Harvey Fierstein and Nathan Lane over the coals – Fierstein who these days always seems to have the Great White Way in the palm of his hands and Lane who is, it seems, often mistakenly taken to be “that other comedian”, (Fierstein.)
One of Mr. McNally’s main targets is none other than The New York Times chief drama critic Ben Brantley. In “It’s Only a Play” he is referred to throughout with the question of whether or not he will give a good review to “The Golden Egg.” By the way the director of “The Golden Egg” play in “It’s Only a Play,” who goes by the name Frank Finger, is played by Rupert Grint of “Harry Potter” fame. Wearing an English Mod-style plaid suit and with falling-in-his-face hair he gives a brilliant outsider over-the-top farcical performance that is wildly funny.
As in “All About Eve” the bed is covered with the luxurious coats put there by a young man hired to take care of the needs of the coming and going celebrities. The young coat-taker named Gus P. Head, who also serves drinks, is played with great hilarity by a newcomer to the Broadway stage, Micha Stock, and he holds his own in relation to the list of superstars which include F. Murray Abraham as a cynical broken down critic named Ira Drew and the incredible Stockard Channing who plays Virginia Noyes, a cocaine-addicted movie actress attempting to make a Broadway comeback. Virginia is filled with rage at the downward descent of her career – her full-out tirade on the world of Broadway, the theater and movies, is a Tallulah Bankhead-style turn in this show and ought not to be missed by serious theater goers – that is if you can now even get a ticket. (Word is that “It’s Only a Play” took in $8 million before previews even began.) To be sure much of this early rush for tickets centers around the iconic team of Nathan Lane and Mathew Broderick who broke box-office records with the long run of “The Producers.” With the hilarious “It’s Only a Play” Lane and Broderick may repeat this success.