ISIS is overtaking the Middle East, ebola spreads death from Liberia to Texas, President Obama stops traffic from Malibu to La Jolla, and Philip Roth still can’t cop the Nobel Prize for Literature. Not to worry: Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick are spinning some kind of feel-good gold at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, where Terrence McNally’s much revised and oft-revived love letter to Broadway, It’s Only A Play, opened Thursday night.
Nothing loves a backstage comedy like the Broadway audience, and perhaps only the combination of Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman in A Steady Rain at this same theater five years ago could have picked the patrons’ pockets as these two, still stirring memories of their first pairing 13 years ago in The Producers. It certainly can’t have hurt that they are abetted in Jack O’Brien’s sleek production by an expert cast that could have been drafted as much for demographic appeal as for acting stature: Harry Potter fans? Here’s Rupert Grint in his Broadway debut. Still mourning Will & Grace? Here’s Megan Mullally. Looking for some stage royalty? Here are Stockard Channing and F. Murray Abraham.
No wonder the show has been running since August with tickets selling at Big Musical prices. Everyone needs a laugh, and few writers serve them up with such smart affection as the author of Master Class, Frankie And Johnny In The Clair De Lune and the books for Ragtime and Kiss Of The Spider Woman.
Originally called Broadway, Broadway, this play closed in Philadelphia before getting its 1978 Times Square debut. With a new name and an improved script, it was mounted off-off-Broadway in 1982 and again, triumphantly, in 1986 at McNally’s New York home, the Manhattan Theatre Club. Now it’s back with Broderick as Peter Austin, author of The Golden Egg, which is having its Broadway opening on the night the play takes place, and Lane as Jimmy Wicker, who became a star in Peter’s first play and since has decamped for Hollywood and fame in a long-running TV series.
We are in the posh upstairs bedroom of Julia Budder (Mullally, flighty in a knowing sort of way), the skittish angel who has produced the play. The stream of clothing being thrown on her bed announces the arrivals of celebrants and hangers-on below: The faux-fur animal skins means the cast of The Lion King has arrived, and so on. Awaiting Peter’s entrance with Julia and Jimmy are Virginia Noyes (Channing, sardonic and regal as ever), the washed-up star forever altering her none-too-anchored state of consciousness; Frank Finger (Grint, impish and wild-eyed), the enfant terrible director yearning for someone to finally call bullshit on his body of work; Ira Drew (Abraham, dour and slimy), the most vicious critic in town; and Gus (Micah Stock, ingenue-ish), the actor wannabe who proves to be as bereft of talent as he is of clue. Every character has a model in real life; theatergoers in the know will have no problem recognizing them.
Some playwrights (they know who they are) have a middlebrow gift for making audiences feel smart by throwing in just the right dash of intellectual-seeming palaver. McNally has a gift for making the audience feel like Broadway insiders, unleashing an absolute cataract of inside-baseball jokes about shows currently running a few doors down, about theater producers and landlords whose names no one outside a 10-block radius has ever heard of, and personal competitors like playwright and book-writer Harvey Fierstein, who is second only to chief New York Times drama critic Ben Brantley in taking it on the chin here.
But Brantley is the villain, and when Peter finally, bravely, reports word-for-word Brantley’s review of his new play, McNally is at his nasty best. The piece is absurd, but the scorched earth left by a negative Times review is real. It’s at this point that comedy and sentiment — let’s call it love — merge in It’s Only A Play. (Brantley’s predecessor Frank Rich, reviewing it in 1986, took it well in stride in his rave review.)
Broderick is staunch and starched as the idealistic playwright, given to romanticizing the role of the artist in some windy speeches. That definitive earlier production featured the late, incomparable James Coco as Jimmy. Lane is hardly a slouch when it comes to playing savagely witty, two-faced, self-loving characters (“I can not believe the egos in this room!” he bellows, causing much laughter). Lane indeed carries the show on his capable shoulders, doling out the cutting lines and abashed double-takes as expertly as a Las Vegas croupier at a gaming table. And it all unfolds on Scott Pask’s elegant set, the actors dressed as impeccably as one would expect from costumier supreme Ann Roth.
O’Brien’s unimpeachable pacing and the engaged performances might be enough to satisfy even those not in the know. But It’s Only A Play is wildly overlong and wears out its welcome a full half-hour before the final curtain. It is, after all, only a play. And what a world awaits when the doors swing back open onto West 45th Street.