Given the importance of star power in Broadway success, it is little wonder that the updated revival of Terrence McNally’s It’s Only a Play is busily selling standing room tickets for its run through January.
It is little wonder in spite of the fact that it is not a particularly good play. If you’ve got a TV name like Megan Mullally playing a ditzy producer, a Harry Potter alum like Rupert Grint playing a hotshot British director, an Academy Award winning actor like F. Murray Abraham playing a gleeful critic, and an Emmy and Tony winner like Stockard Channing playing an actress encumbered by a court-ordered ankle monitor, you’ve got more than 50 percent of the show cast with enough star power to sell out for years never mind three months.
But then to add Matthew Broderick as a playwright, and top the whole crew off with Nathan Lane as a Broadway star who sold out to TV, well, you’re not talking “Springtime for Hitler.” What you’ve got is a crown with seven diamonds. This is a cast doomed to success. Indeed the one member of the show’s cast with a name that means little is Micah Stock, who plays a newly arrived aspiring actor who has taken a temporary job, and it turns out that he has no trouble holding his own on the crowded stage. Indeed he turns in one of the show’s best performances.
There is something of a plot: it is opening night of a new play, The Golden Egg, by Broderick’s character, and everyone has gathered at the producer’s house for a party while they await the reviews. They all have their own axes to grind, and, of course the reviews come, and they are what you would expect. As plots go, it isn’t much, but plot is not the point of the play.
It’s Only a Play is all about the jokes. It’s seven-handed stand-up comedy on a fancy set – one joke after another. Nasty jokes, inside jokes, groaners and bad jokes, and plenty of very funny jokes delivered with zest by the inimitable Lane, along with listless deadpan by Broderick, professional competence by Abraham and Mullally, and surprising verve from Stock. Stockard Channing was out the night I saw the show, but Isabel Keating, her understudy, did a credible job.
Lane is fantastic. He transforms the material. As for Broderick, the less said the better.
There are plenty of laughs in the show, and laughs have to be enough because there is little else. Characters are stereotypes. Plot is absent. And if the play is trying to say anything about the state of the Broadway theater today, I would be hard pressed to say what it is. If jokes about Harvey Fierstein, Frank Langella and Liza Minelli are enough to justify the price of a ticket, perhaps you can still get them. But don’t come with great expectations; the couple sitting next to me left at intermission and didn’t return for the second act. You may be disappointed.