One way to recognize first-rate playwrights is to seek moments of surprising inspiration in their more unambitious plays. An example: On stage is a room full of theater celebrities, sobbing over their stalling careers. A starry-eyed wannabe behind them grabs the nearest cape and passionately renders the act-one finale of Wicked. This image, at once surrealist and satirical, speaks volumes of the contemporary Broadway theater’s distance from its noble legacy and the infuriating but optimistic ignorance of the generation now awash on its shores.
The rest of Terrence McNally’s two-and-a-half-hour It’s Only a Play, now at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, consists mostly of jokes and comic bits poking fun at the contemporary theater and the personalities that occupy it. The setting, a lavish Manhattan condo decked by designer Scott Pask in silver and gold, is an unsentimental reminder that Broadway theater is a plaything for the rich, and this loving but cynical tone governs the evening.
The millionaire in question here is Julia Budder (Megan Mullally), who’s financed her friend and playwright Peter Austin’s (Matthew Broderick) Broadway premiere. It’s opening night, and Budder and Austin gather in her bedroom while a raging party carries on downstairs. They’re joined by actor James Wicker (Nathan Lane), Austin’s best friend who turned down the lead in the play in favor of his TV career; Frank Finger (Rupert Grint), the play’s eccentric British director; Virginia Noyes (pronounced “noise,” Stockard Channing), the over-the-hill leading lady; Ira Drew (F. Murray Abraham), a theater critic loosely based, if I had to guess, on John Simon; and Gus P. Head (Micah Stock), the aforementioned aspirant, who landed a gig as the party’s coat check.
There’s not much plot to McNally’s play. Austin’s premiere, inauspiciously called The Golden Egg, is a flop, and we watch as his so-called friends vacillate between flattery and fury while awaiting this news. Originally written in the early 1980s, but revived considerably for the present (Stock spends much of the play bringing up the comic coats of Daniel Radcliffe, the cast of The Lion King, and Lady Gaga), the play in performance rides on its one-liners. Thankfully, they mostly land, letting the 75-year-old McNally show how hip he still can be, but any lag in the laughter makes one wish the play were shorter, faster, funnier—or more substantive.
But with a title like It’s Only a Play, one feels guilty nit-picking about depth. The new production, directed by Jack O’Brien, is an excuse not only to crack theater jokes, but also to reunite Broderick with Lane, whose dual star power dwarfs cast members who should be headliners on their own. Lane earns the most stage time, and though the part of a smolderingly bitter actor and straight man to the zanier characters around him isn’t the best fit for Lane’s broad talents, he’s nonetheless the most effortless performer on stage. While many of his cast members tend to be deliberate about their jokes (the consequence of O’Brien’s somewhat precious direction), Lane mostly barrels through and enjoys the ride. Broderick, by contrast, plays up his awkward stiltedness as the earnest and perennially dissatisfied Austin. In such a mode, his chemistry with Lane is barely on evidence, and Broderick often seems to be confused how he got on stage in the first place.
The winner of the evening is Mullally, who gives her most buoyant, playful, and confident performance in decades. In a blond wig and dress that matches her character’s condo (designed by Ann Roth), Mullally anchors the production by blurring the line between clown and character actress. She’s the only performer, in other words, you believe even when she’s not making you laugh.
Channing plays the unhinged and drug-addicted diva perhaps a bit too well. She is the most forceful presence on stage, and she commits to her moments more fully than her castmates, but she hardly looks them in the eyes and seems ready to pounce on them as quickly as improvise with them. Grint is given too much to work with as the eccentric director, his eyes ablaze with too much makeup, his outfit a dizzying glam-rock jump suit. By the time he crawls around the stage beneath a black shroud, and we’re told he’s in his “Noh theater” mode, one is ready to pity Grint. He’s approached the part with the energy of a bullfighter; it’s not his fault that we’re bored.
Abraham is admirable but ill-used amid a crowded stage, while Stock is successful at being awestruck, and a bit confused, by the seismic spectacle on which he’s stumbled. He speaks—or rather, stares—for us. By the time the night is over, we both will hardly forget what we’ve seen. We’ll be thankful for the gift and the anecdote, though perhaps we’ll find it unnecessary to repeat.
It’s Only a Play runs through January 4 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.