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Broadway Review: ‘It’s Only a Play’

With:
F. Murray Abraham, Matthew Broderick, Stockard Channing, Rupert Grint, Nathan Lane, Megan Mullally, Micah Stock.

Nobody does mean-nasty-vicious like Terrence McNally, bless his black heart. The pitiless playwright has exhumed “It’s Only a Play,” his 1986 love-hate letter to those big babies who work and play on Broadway, and updated it for today — and for the timely if schmaltzy reunion of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. The comedy’s slight plot, about the high drama (and low comedy) of the opening night of a new Broadway show, is still a trifle. But the well-aimed and highly personal zingers are more malicious, and delicious, this time out.

The setup for this showbiz comedy is perfect: The producer, playwright, director and star of a new Broadway show, along with friends and foes, are huddled upstairs in the producer’s townhouse, anxiously awaiting the reviews, while a raucous opening-night party rages downstairs.

After an initial false step in 1978 (when the show, then called “Broadway, Broadway,” flopped out of town), the concept clicked in 1982, when the show was retooled and re-launched Off Off Broadway by the Manhattan Punch Line. It worked just as well in 1986, when Manhattan Theater Club picked up the production for its City Center main stage. And since the more things change in this business, the more they stay the same, McNally’s original blueprint still works just fine in helmer Jack O’Brien’s snappy production.

O’Brien lets us know right at the top of the show that we’re in for some good times. One big tip is his savvy casting of Micah Stock as Gus P. Head, the clueless innocent who has been hired to collect the guests’ coats, but hopes that one of the famous among them will recognize his hidden theatrical talents. Stock is a natural comic actor, with his lanky frame and hilarious deadpan expression, and he makes an exciting Main Stem debut as this dim yokel. “This town’s gonna eat him alive,” someone predicts.

Gus is on coat duty in the producer’s bedroom and is seriously starstruck by all the theater royalty at the party. He identifies them all when he tosses their coats (witty concoctions by costumer Ann Roth) onto the king-sized bed: Tommy Tune’s impossibly long fur number is the first sight gag to get a solid laugh. One by one, all the Broadway shows, from “The Lion King” to “Rock of Ages,” are represented — and impaled with one of the scribe’s brilliant one-liners.

While they’re all partying downstairs, the principals are jumping out of their skins from stress. Anyone who’s been there will tell you that you really have to be there — and have a horse in the race — to get the full wallop of the nerve-wracking experience of waiting for the critical word on your show, in this case called “The Golden Egg.” McNally captures that near-death experience with a barrage of the anxiety-ridden jokes Broadway wags crack to keep the dark away.

The stakes are certainly high for the playwright, Peter Austin (Matthew Broderick), whose professional career and livelihood are on the line.  Peter is one of those eternally stagestruck naïfs who can’t quite believe their luck to work in the most wonderful profession in the world.  Broderick plays to that childlike sense of wonder, as well as to the unspoken but underlying terror that his good luck is about to be snatched away from him.

The most conflicted person in the room is the scribe’s once-best friend and collaborator, James Wicker (Nathan Lane, Broadway’s reigning prince of comedy), a TV sitcom star who turned down the male lead in Peter’s play and now wonders if he’s going to regret that decision. For the sake of their old friendship, James would kinda-sorta like the play to be a hit. But far better it should be a flop, so he wouldn’t have to kick himself for turning it down — especially if ABC cancels his show.  Or if, God forbid, the actor in the role he turned down (who has “all of my mannerisms and none of my warmth”) should be up for a Tony. Lane has the best comic timing in the business, and it really is a joy to watch him as he savors every drop of McNally’s venomous humor.

Devoted fans of this “Odd Couple,” who wish that every season produced a new show like “The Producers,” made this “Play” a hit before it officially opened.  And for these fans, there’s a rewarding hug-and-make-up scene between Peter and James that might even be as heartfelt as it plays.

Everybody else in this posh anteroom of hell — amiably mocked by set designer Scott Pask as the over-decorated lair of a rich lady with a doting husband and a lot of time on her hands — also has a vested interest in the fate of “The Golden Egg.” There’s the producer, to begin with. Megan Mullally spoons some sugar into her satirical perf of Julia Budder, who’s sunk a fortune into the show so she can be its sole producer, a “real” producer who “gives notes” and stands alone on stage to pick up her Tony Award.

Stockard Channing comes out with guns blazing as Virginia Noyes, the has-been star, pharmaceutical expert and notorious insurance liability who has to perform in a court-directed ankle monitor and check in every couple of hours with her parole officer. Virginia is so wicked, she comes right out with the “c” word — or, as that dear nitwit, Julia, puts it: “the ‘k’ word.” Channing appears to be in heaven in this bad-girl role.

Rupert Grint overdoes it as Frank Finger, the eccentric British director who is so unsettled by all the mindless praise for his inane work that he’s actually hoping for bad notices. But this young thesp has grown up since his Harry Potter days, and he certainly looks eccentric in his cheeky Carnaby Street costume.

The last guy in the room, who clearly has no reason to be at this party, is the theater critic Ira Drew (F. Murray Abraham, brave soul, to play a man known as “the Eviscerator”). He’s not much as a character, but he makes an excellent garbage pail for all those clichés about critics, like the notion that they all want to be playwrights. The buffoonish Ira actually gets off easy, compared with the treatment of the New York Times critic whose devastating notice scrambles this “Egg” when it’s read out loud at the party.

But McNally reaches far and wide for his victims, from Catherine Zeta-Jones to the cast of “Mathilda” and “those dreadful dancing Irish.” There’s even a special dig for those vile message boards in which so-called theater “lovers” savage shows while they’re still in preview.

At the heart of the humor is the sublime narcissism of the professional players and their honest conviction that nothing matters except the theater. Certainly not those real-life horrors reported on the television news shows that James impatiently cuts off while waiting for Roma Torres’ all-important TV review from NY1. So laugh if you must — and you really must laugh at McNally’s unquenchable wit — but those sloppy-kiss tributes to the theater delivered by Peter and James are deeply felt and honestly moving. And if you don’t share the gooey sentiments, you really shouldn’t be at this show.

Broadway Review: 'It's Only a Play'

Gerald Schoenfeld Theater; 1085 seats; $167 top. Opened Oct. 9, 2014. Reviewed Oct. 4. Running time: TWO HOURS, 25 MIN.

Production: A Tom Kirdahy, Roy Furman, Ken Davenport, Hunter Arnold, Morris Berchard & Susan Dietz, Caiola Prods., Carl Daikeler, Jim Fantaci, Wendy Federman, Barbara Freitag & Loraine Alterman Boyle, Hugh Hayes, Jim Herbert, Ricardo F. Hornos, Stephanie Kramer, LAMS Prods., Scott Landis, Mark Lee & Ed Filipowski, Harold Newman, Roy Putrino, Sanford Robertson, Tom Smedes & Peter Stern, and Brian Cromwell Smith presentation of a play in two acts by Terrence McNally.

Creative: Directed by Jack O'Brien. Set, Scott Pask; costumes, Ann Roth; lighting, Philip Rosenberg; sound, Fitz Patton; hair, wigs, makeup, Campbell Young Associates; production stage manager, Jane Grey.

Cast: F. Murray Abraham, Matthew Broderick, Stockard Channing, Rupert Grint, Nathan Lane, Megan Mullally, Micah Stock.

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