The humor works by name dropping: if you like that sort of thing, you will be rolling in the aisles. If you don’t, you might wonder why you are there. McNally has replaced the A-List celebrities from 1985 (Lena Horne, Leontyne Price, Shirley MacLaine, Don Johnson, Arlene Francis, Bob Fosse, etc.) with the current list such as Al Pacino, Donald Trump, Denzel Washington, Rosie O’Donnell, Ryan Seacrest, etc. There are a couple of places where the original references give away that the play is from the 80’s but most theatergoers may not notice.
The play takes place at the opening night party for the new Broadway play, The Golden Egg, at the home of producer Julie Budder (pronounced like “butter”) who is calling it “the party of the year for the play of the season.” She herself has been spending the evening after the opening at Mt. Sinai’s as the family dog Torch has bitten Kelly Rippa and Mr. Budder was mugged in the men’s room at Sardi’s (yes, it’s that kind of play.) We are in her posh second floor bedroom suite in white, taupe, chrome and glass (from designer Scott Pask) where television sit-com star James Wicker (Lane), in his ninth season on Out on a Limb, has come to make a phone call. The play has been written for him by his best friend, writer Peter Austin, but he has declined to be in it. Now he is gleeful that he has been right to avoid it. He is joined by the coat check boy Gus (Micah Stock), a hick from the sticks and an “interdisciplinary theater artist,” i.e. “an unemployed actor,” so new to New York that he doesn’t recognize anyone. Everyone at the party is convinced the play will be a smash hit except Wicker who knows it doesn’t work without him.
They are joined by Virginia Noyes (Channing), the female star of the show, a coked-up Hollywood has-been hoping to restart her career, who has co-starred in a film with Wicker but doesn’t recognize him. Next to take shelter in the upstairs bedroom is the play’s director Sir Frank Finger (Grint), British boy wonder who is aching for his first flop to prove he isn’t infallible; Ira Drew (Abraham), New York’s most vicious and hated critic who has a secret he is longing to tell someone; as well as producer Julia (Mullally), a chic and sweet Southern woman who simply can’t do enough for her actors and production staff. But where is playwright Peter Austin (Broderick) who has left a letter to be opened only after the reviews are in? Then, just as it is time to hear the New York Times review, the curtain falls on Act I.
Much of the humor is about New York theater critics and their take on bad plays as well as theater maxims which aren’t exactly news. As might be expected, the New York Times, the newspaper of record, and its lead drama critic come in for much of the bashing. McNally pokes fun at everyone in show business including himself – as well as Nathan Lane – and one hopes he has gotten permission from some of his friends to skewer them the way he does. Aside from the name-dropping, there are a great many in-jokes about theater and show business people and it helps if you recognize their particular follies. It’s Only a Play has a laugh every few lines but like Chinese food you are hungry for more almost immediately after.
While the characters are paper thin and mainly stereotypes, the cast does wonders with their slim material. Under a strong director like O’Brien, Lane’s over-the-top mannerisms have been kept in check and he has returned to the fine comic performances that made him famous. Almost unrecognizable under an overly painted make-up job, Channing as the foul-mouthed diva is hilarious getting mileage out of lines that aren’t necessarily funny. Classical actor Abraham, suave and stylish as an acid-tongued critic who wants to be loved for himself alone, seems to be having a wonderful time in this company as do all of the actors.
Broderick who does not put in his first appearance until late in the first act gives a much stronger performance that he did in Nice Work If You Can Get It and redeems himself somewhat as the nice guy of Broadway shows. He seems to have decided to play the playwright on his opening night as numb to any more jibes which is certainly believable. Mullally who once costarred with Broderick in How to Succeed in Business without Really
Trying returns to the Broadway stage for the first time in seven years after her long stint in television sit-com. Her Julia is deliciously ditsy, a sort of sweet sister under the skin to her Karen Walker from Will and Grace, another woman who fractures the language.
Making his Broadway debut, Grint is asked to overdo his manic-depressive director character quite a bit, but his comic timing is impeccable. The biggest surprise is Micah Stock being “introduced” in his Broadway debut though he has appeared Off Broadway in McNally’s And Away We Go at the Pearl Theatre in 2013. He holds his own beautifully in this heady company, always coming up with another gimmick as he makes his many appearances. Ann Roth’s costumes are elegant for the opening night guests but the coats that Stock brings on stage are truly hilarious.
It’s Only a Play is a kind of Broadway comedy we don’t see very often any more. Without a thought in its head, it is a laugh riot – but only if you don’t mind that it mainly proceeds on name-dropping. Of course, the starry name cast is excellent company.
It’s Only a Play (extended through June 7, 2015)
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.itsonlyaplay.com
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission