Show Thyself: Broadway satire at its best in 'It's Only a Play'

One of the most delightful forms of satire occurs when theater makes fun of itself. Some of the classics of the type include such hits as “The Royal Family,” Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman’s parody of the Barrymore family, the reigning stars of Broadway at the time; Kaufman and Hart’s “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” which satirized primarily the caustic New York theater critic Alexander Wollcott with some pot-shots at Noel Coward, Gertrude Lawrence and Harpo Marx; and Michael Frayn’s hilarious farce, “Noises Off,” which displayed a frantic company of third-rate actors performing in a truly dreadful play while dealing with the chaos of their personal lives and the wretched conditions of the playhouse where they are working. Even the venerable musical “Showboat” poked some fun at “life upon the wicked stage.”

This season, an overdue example of that genre opened to major critical acclaim and blockbuster sales, Terence McNally’s It’s Only a Play, starring a dream cast: Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Stockard Channing, Megan Mullally and F. Murray Abraham (just count the number of Tonys, Emmys and Oscars in that group!) Rupert Grint, best known for his appearance in the Harry Potter films, is making his Broadway debut along with a newcomer named Micah Stock, who, I predict, can look forward to a long career on stage and screen.

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It takes place on the opening night of a new play written by an insecure playwright (Broderick), starring a washed-up Hollywood star whose life has become a combination of plastic surgery, booze, drugs and an ankle bracelet to monitor her activities for her parole officer (Channing), and directed by a British wunderkind, Frank Finger (Grint.) The playwright’s long-time friend, James Wicker (Lane) has flown in from Los Angeles, where he stars in a long-running sitcom and has become much more famous and successful than his buddy. They have come to the opening-night party in the lavish duplex apartment of the show’s producer Julia Budder (Mullally) to await the reviews of their show. They are joined by a minor theater critic who majors in disapproval and insult (Abraham). While they gather in Julia’s enormous living room, the Broadway glitterati are gathering downstairs at the extravagant bar and buffet. Connecting the two floors is a coat-check boy who has just arrived in New York eager to start his acting career (Stock) who exclaims, “This place is crawling with famous people.”

The playwright, Terence McNally, certainly counts as one of the “famous people” in the theater world. Winner of four Tony Awards, four Drama Desk Awards and a Pulitzer Prize, he has served as playwright or librettist for an amazing number of hit plays and musicals (“Ragtime,” “Master Class,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “The Full Monty,” to name a few) and even wrote the libretto for the operatic version of “Dead Man Walking.” While his work has been witty and touching, he has never risen to the comic heights achieved in “It’s Only a Play.”

While the plight of each of the characters is painfully funny, the evisceration of the Broadway theater and its stars is outrageous. When the script of this production (there was an earlier version that played off-Broadway in 1986) is published, it should include footnotes to explain the references to current celebrities and productions. The A-list includes Shia LeBeouf, Faye Dunaway, Bernadette Peters, Liza Minnelli, Lady Gaga, James Franco, Frank Langella, Rosie O’Donnell, Kelly Ripa, Harvey Fierstein, Steven Spielberg, Bill Gates, Bill de Blasio, Tommy Tune and Pope Francis, to name only 15 of them. The hatcheck boy recounts a conversation he overheard when someone said to one of the guests, “You look just like Hillary Clinton,” and the guest responded, “I hope so, I am Hillary Clinton.”

But the biggest target of the vitriol is the currently reigning theater critic of The New York Times, Bill Brantley, who is described in terms that I cannot repeat in this respectable magazine. And other features of the current Broadway scene are skewered viciously: the use of Hollywood stars to draw audiences (the current revival of “The Elephant Man” starring Hollywood heartthrob Bradley Cooper is playing just down the block, while Emma Stone and Hugh Jackman are currently appearing elsewhere), the adulation for British directors and transfers from London (“Matilda,” “Skylight”), the Disneyfication of Broadway (“The Lion King,” “Cinderella,” “Aladdin”), the Jukebox-musicals (“Jersey Boys,” “Beautiful,” “Motown,” “Mama Mia”) the revivals (“Cabaret,“ “On The Town,” “Pippin,” “Side Show,” “The Real Thing,” “This Is Our Youth” ) and the long-running megahits (“Les Miserables,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and the aforementioned “The Lion King,” all celebrating their average of 20 years of performances about now)—which pretty much covers all of Broadway’s current offerings. They even mock the continued success of the long running but critically panned “Rock of Ages.” When the play is mentioned, someone asks, “Hasn’t that closed?” The reply is, “Everyone thinks it has, but it hasn’t.” (See the need for footnotes in the published version?)

There are considerable self-referential bits as well. The set itself is arranged so that each actor makes a separate grand entrance (of course!) coming through the door situated in the very center of the stage above a short staircase, a mini-“Hello Dolly” moment for each of them. Nathan Lane’s character Wicker spends about the first 20 minutes of the play talking on the phone with his agent giving the full exposition of the play’s situation and then complaining that he hated another play that spent 20 minutes in exposition. Later, he says, “What do I know? I liked ‘The Addams Family,’ a minor flop of a musical a few seasons ago which starred Mr. Lane himself.” Finally, when his character is described as more effeminate than the flamboyant Harvey Fierstein, he moans, “Harvey Fierstein? Harvey Fierstein? Nathan Lane I could accept. But Harvery Fierstein?” Early in the play Wicker corrects the coat-check fellow, Gus, who addresses him as “sir,” informing him that everyone in the theater world addresses each other with “darling” or similar terms of endearment. So throughout the play, Gus startles everyone by addressing each of them as “sweetheart,” “honey,” “love,” etc.

All of the actors—especially Mr. Lane and Ms. Channing—are at the top of their form. The one notable exception is Matthew Broderick. It might be because, instead of the numerous one-liners the other actors are given to deliver, he is asked to utter some lengthy semi-serious monologues—perhaps as an indication of his character’s lack of wit. But even those speeches could have been spoken with a little more comic punch. He displays little connection with the rest of the neurotics in the room, often not even seeming to look at the person he is addressing. His best moment is when he leads everyone in praying for a good review. But even that moment is enhanced by every character’s reactions and comments about the lengthiness of the prayer.

In any case, this excellent cast has other commitments, I am sure, and they will eventually be replaced. In fact, Nathan Lane will be leaving soon and Martin Short will take over the part. But this delightful comedy will go on and continue this festival of self-mockery that the theater does so well.

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