Broadway is going meta and I wonder if producers are interested in plot lines that don’t involve a life in the theater. Earlier this month we saw the opening of The Country House by Donald Margulies, a new play about a family of actors ensconced in the Berkshires. This week Michael C. Hall stepped into the role of Hedwig, a star-turn performance about a gender-bending performance artist. And of course, we’ve still got Alan Cumming and Michelle Williams traipsing along in the revival of the revival of Cabaret. But none of them tackle the theme of a life on the boards with such biting humor as Terrence McNally’s It’s Only a Play. Dating back to 1978 and originally titled Broadway Broadway, the script has gotten a 21 century makeover with no additional writing credits, but I would guess that the playwright had some keen millennial eyes on the prize, as this latest version is peppered with references to Lady Gaga, One Direction and other chart-toppers.
The play centers on the opening night of Peter Austin’s (Matthew Broderick) new play as he and others gather at the home of lead producer Julia Budder (Megan Mullally) to await the reviews. Along for the ride are his longtime friend, James Wiker (Nathan Lane), who has returned from L.A. and a long TV stint to see his best friend’s work; leading lady Virginia Noyes (Stockard Channing); critic Ira Drew (F. Murray Abraham), who has another agenda on his mind; British Wunderkind director Frank Finger (Rupert Grint) and a fresh-of-the-bus coat attendee, Micah Stock.
Together, the cast rattles through McNally’s script, which is packed with one-liners and smart commentary about the business. The audience seemed revved up for a Lane-Broderick reunion, as the team appeared so famously together in The Producers. Mr. Broderick also appeared opposite Ms. Mullally in the 1995 revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. There’s a lot of history on that stage and when Mr. Lane entered for the first time, the audience burst into applause as if he was theater royalty. By the final curtain call (yes, there’s an actual curtain, along with a lux set by Scott Pask), he’s earned every last clap.
The supporting cast for the most part keeps up. Mr. Stock makes a charming Broadway debut as a naïve actor who has stepped into the world he’s dreamt about. Ms. Channing captures both the humor and gravitas of an actress of a certain age who can no longer rely on “pretty.” But Mr. Grint’s stomping and hair-pulling turn as the director desperate for a bad review is somewhat of a self-prophecy. It is an unwieldy performance untamed by director Jack O’Brien’s otherwise deft hand.
If you’re looking for a light-hearted night at the theater—about the theater—then head to the Gerald Schoenfeld where this cast of Broadway vets and their up-and-coming counterparts offer laughs, perhaps a swelling tear or two, and a gentle reminder that a play (even though it’s only a play) is a beautiful thing.
It’s Only a Play
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
236 West 45th Street
Through January 4