It’s taken more than three decades for Terrence McNally’s backstage comedy It’s Only a Play to make it to Broadway. The show was bound for the Great White Way in 1978 until a disastrous Philadelphia tryout derailed those plans. But McNally never completely abandoned the project, which is set at the posh Manhattan townhouse of a Broadway producer as the cast and creative team gather for an opening-night bash to await the reviews. In the mid-’80s, there was a successful Off Broadway revival with James Coco, Christine Baranski, and Joanna Gleason. And now it’s landed on Broadway at last in a hilarious and star-packed evening of theater in-jokes that often plays like a nonmusical version of Forbidden Broadway.
McNally has completely overhauled his original script, stuffing it with up-to-date references to everything from Lady Gaga to Kelly Ripa, and from Matilda to the upcoming revivals of A Delicate Balance and The Elephant Man. There are also plenty of way-inside punchlines for theater chatroom habitués: Bonus laughs for those who know that Moose Murders was a notorious Broadway flop or that if you have to pick a hometown for the show’s nervous playwright the natural choice is Corpus Christi.
Director Jack O’Brien’s production reteams Tony winners Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, who these days pack a bigger punch at the box office than in terms of natural onstage chemistry. The two play old friends—Lane as an actor who’s passed up the lead role in the play-within-a-play to continue his hit TV series, and Broderick as the anxious playwright whose first big hit was a star-making vehicle for Lane’s character. But while Lane commands the stage with his quippy narcissism (abetted by some of McNally’s strongest meta-jokes), Broderick continues his recent run of stiff, somnambulent, and overly mannered stage performances. The energy and pace of the show deflate whenever he opens his mouth. Worse, he’s saddled with some of the lengthiest speeches in the show, overly earnest paeans to the theater and Why It Matters. (Even his quips, like one about an imagined revival of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters starring the Kardashians, don’t so much land as disintegrate on impact.)
The rest of the cast, though, enlivens characters who can border on the thanklessly one-dimensional. Megan Mullally adopts a vaguely Southern accent as the dilettante first-time producer who vacillates between shrewd or naïve as the circumstances demand; Stockard Channing sports a cane as an aging, coke-snorting diva whose vanity fights for supremacy over her insecurity; F. Murray Abraham is a surprisingly giggly critic and artist manqué; and Harry Potter alum Rupert Grint—looking like a ginger Eddie Izzard with his guyliner, mousse-spiked hair, and mod suit—plays the wunderkind British director with foot-stomping hyperactivity.
Interestingly, the actor best able to match Lane’s comic timing is newcomer Micah Stock, displaying the down-on-the-farm deadpan of a young Jim Parsons as a hayseed wannabe actor hired as a cater-waiter for the onstage shindig. (”It’s Eve Harrington in pants,” Channing cracks of him at one point.)
Despite McNally’s considerable revisions, there’s just not enough plot here to sustain a two-and-a-half-hour show—and what plot there is can seem thinner and more obvious than Abraham’s toupee. But this is the sort of comedy that puts the broad in Broadway, with a genuinely funny script boasting pointed barbs at theater mainstays such as Liza Minnelli, Harvey Fierstein, Audra McDonald, and New York Times critic Ben Brantley (who’s name-dropped frequently enough to justify full billing). It’s Only a Play is a poison-pen mash note to New York theater, at once gleefully bitchy and affectionate. B+