The playwright Terrence McNally, who turns 76 next month, is not only prolific but prolific in many genres. His catalogue, spanning 51 years, includes Broadway comedies like The Ritz and dramas like Master Class, the books for five Broadway musicals, and dozens of uncategorizable works, like Corpus Christi and A Perfect Ganesh, that began their lives off Broadway and beyond. Some have been sublime, some duds, most in between; their reception, too, has run the gamut. (He’s received four Tony awards but also this hideous Time review of And Things That Go Bump in the Night in 1965: “One of those off-bleat stupefactions that make the modern stage look like the queerest wing of a nuthouse.”) So when he writes about the theater, as he does in It’s Only a Play — an Off Broadway comedy from 1986 that has just made it to Broadway in a revised edition — he knows what he’s writing about. That’s the great pleasure of it, and perhaps the great problem.
It’s the kind of show, filled with sly references and oversize personalities, that used to be called a back-stager or a love letter. But it isn’t quite either. For one thing, it’s more of an off-stager, set at the opening-night party for a disaster-in-the-making called The Golden Egg. The characters are show people, yes: the play’s earnest author, Peter Austin, making his Broadway debut; its drug-addled Hollywood-refugee star, Virginia Noyes; its pretentious director, Frank Finger, a British wunderkind; and its fledgling producer, Julia Budder, a well-intentioned socialite with money but not intelligence to burn. Also on hand in Julia’s posh bedroom, as the party degenerates downstairs, are James Wicker, a TV star who wisely turned down the male lead in the play; Ira Drew, a drama critic who (like all drama critics, we are told) is actually a frustrated playwright; and Gus P. Head, a fresh-off-the-bus wannabe actor hired for the evening to take coats.
But having assembled a lifeboat of extreme personalities, McNally doesn’t let much happen. In act one, these seven, in various permutations, await Ben Brantley’s Times review; in act two they deal with its repercussions. The drama is not even characterological; no one is seriously altered by the proceedings. Rather, what McNally offers, mostly in chop-chop joke format or in a few disastrous monologues put in Austin’s mouth, is a comic rumination on life in the theater. But unlike A Life in the Theater or Stage Door, or a million musicals for that matter, it’s not an endorsement. It’s Only a Play doesn’t dramatize the transformative power of acting or the ways in which gumption is supposedly rewarded with stardom. If it’s a love letter at all, it’s a love letter to what theater has become, which is to say a horrible business filled with insane people, vindictive critics, and Tommy Tune. (His fur makes an appearance.)
A play in which the critic character (played as a sadistic wack job by F. Murray Abraham) gets lasagna dumped on him by Patti LuPone is not one you want to pan lightly. And there is much to commend in It’s Only a Play, beginning with the sterling work of Nathan Lane, as James, the TV star. Of course he makes the big jokes fly; McNally knows in his bones how to tee up a great laugh. The real proof of Lane’s stage genius is what he does with the middling jokes. Gossiping on the phone to “the West Coast,” James says of Virginia Noyes’s star turn: “I haven’t seen a performance like that since her last one.” You could go on a spelunking expedition searching for the source of the funny in that. But Lane finds it, if only in himself. Over the course of the play he piles and shapes all these little discoveries in a surprisingly delicate way to form what amounts to a character, which he then manages to sustain even when there are no jokes at all. If he makes it look easy, check out the rest of the cast to see that it’s not.
Among them, only Stockard Channing, as Virginia, is working at Lane’s level. What could easily be just a satirical sketch of an entitled has-been snorting her way through disappointment instead develops into something much more touching and thus more fully comic. Watch that guppy face of hers while she takes in the Brantley review:
JAMES: “Virginia Noyes, making a welcome return to the New York stage … ”
JAMES: “ … after a tabloid-stained stint in Hollywood including an Oscar for her controversial performance as an autistic social worker in Bed/Stuy Sunset …”
VIRGINIA: She wasn’t autistic.
Channing turns a bitchy comment into an ineffably sad joke about injured self-regard — then milks it successfully for at least 30 seconds.
The others take as long producing nothing. Megan Mullally strains too hard to make sense of Julia, a producer who has supposedly invested in many shows over the years but does not know that the Shubert brothers are dead. (The last of them went in 1963.) Rupert Grint as the Brit boy wonder, styled and coiffed as a little red hell-monkey, is annoying in a part that is no longer even satirical. Abraham has completely the wrong touch for this material and in any case spends most of his time lurking dourly upstage — an unusually awkward choice by the director Jack O’Brien, who mostly keeps the play moving at a sprightly comic pace. But even O’Brien is defeated by the performance, as the playwright, of Matthew Broderick, or a partly mobile replica thereof. With his stone-faced shtick and impenetrable calm, he lumbers onto the scene like an iceberg, except that icebergs at least eventually melt. Broderick, at best, sing-songs his lines, which unfortunately are meant to be the backbone of McNally’s preachment. Without a credible force representing the active hopes for a meaningful theater, It’s Only a Play skews way to the downside and, hilarious though it often is, comes off as too much of a personal pity party. This is not helped by jokes so inside they seem positively colonoscopic, and a hail Mary pass of a resolution that nobody comes close to catching.
But I left something out — the coat boy. Making his Broadway debut in the throwaway role, Micah Stock almost achieves the impossible in holding the stage with Lane and Channing. He turns It’s Only a Play into a love letter after all, to the hope that however imperfect one show is, there’s always (as McNally well knows) another. Plus, he delivers a rendition of “Defying Gravity” that’s enough to restore your faith in the queerest wing of the nuthouse.
It’s Only a Play is at the Schoenfeld Theatre through January 4.