I wonder: does one actually review It’s Only a Play, or just sort of say, by way of confirmation, Oh, yeah. That thing. It does everything it’s supposed to do. I had a swell, swell time, but even if I hadn’t, it wouldn’t matter. Certain events are impervious to criticism and even analysis, and this is one of them.
Aside from being a veteran and significant American playwright, Terrence McNally is one of the dishiest, pithiest professional fanboys in…in ever, really, in life as we know it on the planet of Broadway and environs; and this comedy is his spin on the age-old drawn-from-real-life premise, what happens among the participants and associates of a play, at the opening night party, before, as and after the reviews come in? Period. No great plot, minimal story, unless watching the ways in which the relationships ebb and flow (I hesitate to say anything as portentous as change) strikes you as enough to hang a synopsis on.
McNally’s selected “focus group” includes the pivot, if not exactly main character, the playwright’s best friend, an actor who turned the play down, using his long-running sitcom as an excuse (Nathan Lane); the veteran leading lady who didn’t turn it down, who has returned to the theatre because her film career has faded (Stockard Channing); the self-flagellating boy-wonder British director who has had nothing but success, thinks he’s a fraud and yearns for failure (Rupert Grint); the sweet, bubble-headed, first-time-doing-it-solo producer, who never manages to get a quote or a title or a common idiom quite right (Megan Mullally); the hopeful playwright (Matthew Broderick); a wildly pretentious and presumptuous critic (F. Murray Abraham); and a waiter with the kind of innocence for which the phrase “just fell off the turnip truck” was coined (Micah Stock).
There are only two important considerations here: Is it funny? And if so, is the cast up to the material?
It is unambiguously funny. McNally writes oldschool, classic jokes borne of character and situation and (seemingly) lets no potential running gag or motif go unexploited. If there’s a warning label to go on the bottle, it’s that the humor may be either too inside for the lay viewer (and we don’t really care about them, do we?, we just sort of pretend), or too annoyingly inside for the experienced viewer who had hoped for something deeper and more consequential than he had any right to expect (and he really needs to get over himself). And fittingly, Jack O’Brien has directed with his usual smarts about staying out of the way of the funny
As to the cast: …oh, gosh, do I really have to go on about the performers? You’ve got the descriptions of the characters, you know who plays them…is there any doubt that they can pull this stuff off?
I think not.
Martin Short replaces Nathan Lane after the new year.
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