"It’s Only a Play" at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre

A treasure trove of witty inside theater humor delivered by expert performers.

Terrence McNally’s It’s Only a Play is not one of his better efforts. In fact, it’s a terrible play! But, you know what? Who cares? When a show keeps you laughing for two and a half hours, fly to the theater, beg, borrow or steal tickets and indulge yourself! Theater mavens and drama queens might have a slight edge in getting the jokes, but there is enough brilliantly choreographed mayhem and pointed zingers to keep anyone rolling in the aisles. Add a world-class cast and it’s easy to see why this show, first staged in 1986, has become such a hit, tweaked and updated by Mr. McNally.

Terrence McNally’s It’s Only a Play is not one of his better efforts. In fact, it’s a terrible play! But, you know what? Who cares? When a show keeps you laughing for two and a half hours, fly to the theater, beg, borrow or steal tickets and indulge yourself! Theater mavens and drama queens might have a slight edge in getting the jokes, but there is enough brilliantly choreographed mayhem and pointed zingers to keep anyone rolling in the aisles. Add a world-class cast and it’s easy to see why this show, first staged in 1986, has become such a hit, tweaked and updated by Mr. McNally.

Set in the posh townhouse of producer gal Julia Budder (Megan Mullally) during the opening night party for a play written by Peter Austin (Matthew Broderick), It’s Only a Play, like the Universe’s Big Bang, starts small and just keeps expanding as one eccentric character after another parades through the over-decorated bedroom-cum-coatroom, manned by the eager, but socially awkward Gus P. Head (Micah Stock, who nearly steals the show right out from under his more experienced cast members). Each character comes equipped with quips, gossip, bons mots and bitchy attitudes as they nervously escape the party buzzing along downstairs. (One running joke is that everyone trapped in the bedroom is starving despite all the alleged food downstairs.)

The play is totally character driven…and what characters: Ira Drew (F. Murray Abraham), a vicious critic in a dreadful toupee with a seething desire to be a playwright; Virginia Noyes (Stockard Channing), a preening, middle-aged actress with a dependence on drugs and plastic surgery (and a lot to lose if the play fails); the new age British peacock of a director, Frank Finger (Rupert Grint) who anxiously oozes his loudly clad body all over the stage all the while exhibiting a kleptomaniacal streak; James Wicker (Nathan Lane), the best friend of the playwright, an actor caught in West Coast sitcom hell; the afore-mentioned producer Julia Budder who thinks of herself as a modern day Diaghilev, but has a habit of misquoting even the most clichéd clichés; and the playwright, Peter Austin (Matthew Broderick), author of The Golden Egg. Their apprehensions multiply, colliding, and tearing off into collateral anxieties. Names are dropped: the Shuberts, Shia LaBeouf, Liza Minnelli, Bernadette Peters, Faye Dunaway, Frank Langella, Harvey Fierstein and Lady Gaga, the last two inspiring two of the best jokes in the show.

All the tumult ends with a thud as the New York Times review is read aloud. It’s a review by “Ben Brantley” unlike any he’s ever written: bitter, scathing, insulting and quite idiotic. This sends the characters reeling into hilarious recriminations and desperate insults until they rally in an oddball way and unite for the sake of the play—and to keep the Shuberts from tossing them out of their theater!

The actors know what they are doing and are hammy in the best sense of the word. Nathan Lane is insanely wonderful, particularly when his ego is bruised. F. Murray Abraham explodes with passion at the end when he thinks he’s saving the day. Stockard Channing has a wide-eyed, bedeviled quality. We see the professional actress constantly fighting with the woman. Megan Mullally is convincing as the rich, very dedicated dilettante, although she can’t seem to decide on an accent. Rupert Grint (of Harry Potter fame) vibrates between hubris and insecurity as the colorful director Frank. Only Matthew Broderick fails to register, lacking the requisite energy to stand up to the rest of the crazies. Since the entire finale depends on his ability to rouse the others to his cause, the play drifts for a few minutes until the more colorful and energetic characters pull it back together.

The set by Scott Pask is wittily overdone. Ann Roth’s costumes capture each character’s quirks like the way-to-small white jacket she gives to young Gus, adding to his gawky quality.

The brilliant theater magician, Jack O’Brien keeps the actors from flying off in all directions. He has a deep feel for comedic timing and keeps the play rolling along a wonderfully brisk pace.

It’s Only a Play will lose Nathan Lane in early January. His role will be taken over by Martin Short.

It’s Only a Play
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
236 West 45th St., between Broadway & 8th Ave.
New York, NY
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com
More Information: www.ItsOnlyAPlay.com
Running time: 2 hrs. 30 minutes with one intermission