New York City Theater
"It’s Only a Play"
Let’s get one thing out of the way. Nathan Lane is a treasure, a comedian who gets laughs not only from dialogue but quadruple takes and staring silences, as well as a superb dramatic actor. From “Lisbon Traviata” to “Love, Valour, Compassion,” from “A Funny Thing” to the forthcoming “The Iceman Cometh,” he melds comedy and drama to show us, like Pagliacci, the ridiculousness and grit of humanity. Now, in the revisal of Terrence McNally’s “It’s Only a Play,” he is wry, rueful, self-deprecating and hilarious.
Too bad the work itself is so rickety, so built on dropping names that the mere mention of “The Book of Mormon” gets laughs from a forgiving audience. Prickly lines like “New York without the theater is Newark” counteract lazy ones like “Who is James Franco and why is he sexting me?” or “She’s my favorite actress after Sissy Spacek” or “Shia LeBeouf is leaving – he’s under arrest.” It’s all so terribly “in,” making spectators into smarty-pants co-conspirators.
Are there laughs? Sure, in this tale of theatrical types awaiting the reviews from the opening night of the aptly named disaster, “The Golden Egg.” Lane is the playwright’s best friend, an actor who deserted the stage for TV. While an A-list party goes on downstairs, upstairs, in the producer’s swank bedroom, writer and friend plus the leading lady, the director, the producer and a wayward critic gather to bitch and worry, going over old times and fretting about what the opening night critics will say. Coming in as target number one is the Times’ Ben Brantley, about whom enough vitriol is spilled to flood 42nd Street.
Matthew Broderick is the playwright, in another pairing with Lane that caused a box office rush for “The Producers” and “The Odd Couple.” But Broderick is clearly the lesser light here, wan and whiny.
Some others in the cast fare as poorly. As the critic, F. Murray Abraham looks as if he’s slumming; Rupert Grint (the redhead from “Harry Potter”) does a frantic imitation of wunderkind director Peter Sellars; Megan Mullally, as the producer, must have the most irritating voice in showbiz. But the debuting Micah Stock brings an eager charm to the role of a hired servant with his foot on the first rung.
Only Stockard Channing, though looking less than her best, keeps up with Lane. As a pampered over-the-hill star, she imbues the typical kitsch about narcissistic, egocentric leading ladies with a tough core. Undaunted, taking it all on the chin, she’s a survivor.
Jack O’Brien directs with a quicksilver hand and the technical work (sets, lights, costumes) is elegant. Since “It’s Only a Play” is selling out – and probably giving pleasure to a lot of theatergoers – why quibble, Sybil? But, gee, couldn’t this have been a wittier evening?
--David A. Rosenberg
Oct. 30, 2014