Friday, October 31, 2014

Despite the Star Power, It's Only a Play

Review: It's Only a Play

Rupert Grint, Megan Mullally, Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, and Stockard Channing anxiously await their opening night reviews in Broadway's It's Only a Play.

There is no lack of star wattage over at the Schoenfeld Theatre, home to the smash hit revival of Terrance McNally's 1978 comedy It's Only a Play. It's hard to recall the last time so many film and theatrical heavyweights were gathered on one stage, with this production's cast having collectively earned 5 Tonys, 6 Emmys, and 1 Oscar (not to mention dozens more nominations and plenty of widespread acclaim). But despite an unquestionably high level of talent, this mighty ensemble struggles and ultimately fails to elevate McNally's heavily updated script into something greater than what it is: an overlong and only haphazardly funny pseudo-farce.

The premise seems rife for comedic gold: at the opening night party, playwright Peter Austin (Matthew Broderick) is anxiously waiting for the reviews of his latest Broadway play, financed by first time producer Julia Budder (Megan Mullally) and directed by British wunderkind Frank Finger (Rupert Grint). Also on hand are Austin's best friend James Wicker (Nathan Lane), who turned down the play's lead role due to his television commitments; booze-addled leading lady Victoria Noise (Stockard Channing); legendarily harsh drama critic Ira Drew (F. Murray Abraham); and a coat check boy who landed this gig on his first night in New York City (newcomer Micah Stock, who probably doesn't have to dig too deep to portray his character's starry eyed admiration). We learn very early on that despite his outward praise, Wicker hated Austin's play - aptly titled The Golden Egg - and is secretly hoping for validation of his feelings from the press, including the all important Ben Brantley from The New York Times.

McNally's setup easily lends itself to off the wall characterizations and more theatrical in jokes than you can shake a stick at; Bernadette Peters, Liza Minelli, and Tommy Tune are just a few of the many theatrical personalities that are mentioned and mocked to varying degrees. However, the ultimately thin premise struggles to fill the production's two-and-a-half hour runtime, and you can't help but think everyone would have been better served by condensing the play down to one act. While some of McNally's barbs are truly hilarious, others feel weirdly out of place in a show that never lets you forget you're watching theatrical royalty. This production embodies many of the theatrical movements it rails against, with complaints about celebrity led revivals and digs at the artistic wasteland of Hollywood ringing false when spoken by such a famous cast widely known for their film work. Such observations are clearly meant to mirror McNally's own feelings, leaving the author looking something like a hypocrite as he happily perpetuates these trends on his way to the bank.

The production also feels oddly censored despite the proliferation of four letter words (anyone who's ever wanted to hear Stockard Channing drop the f-bomb will more than get their money's worth). There is a cranky-old-man undercurrent running through the work that you wish McNally and director Jack O'Brien had more fully embraced, because when they do the play is downright hysterical. Certain jokes seem to have been toned down out of fear of offending the myriad celebrities mentioned in the play, especially since the cast and creative team know many of them personally, but most theatre folk have a sense of humor that surely could have withstood some well-intentioned ribbing. There is a particularly pointed bit about Harvey Fierstein, but you just know the gravely voiced actor would be laughing as loudly as anyone because ultimately, the joke is both hilarious and true. Between the watered down jokes and bloated runtime, It's Only a Play too often produces mere chuckles when belly laughs are called for.

The cast, for all of their talent, runs the gamut from very good to oddly misused. Lane, one of the most reliably excellent actors around, comes across the best, although even his normally boundless energy feels tamped down. Still, every actor could learn from Lane's ability to skirt the line between milking a joke and mugging; no matter how long he draws out a beat it never crosses the line into self indulgence, and when called for he can summon deep wells of emotion. Channing also does fine work as the washed up film actress hoping to make her comeback, although the character is too thinly written to allow her to really cut loose. In his Broadway debut, Grint plays the temperamental director archetype with aplomb, proving as easily accessible on stage as he is on film. And Oscar-winner Abraham is woefully underused in what is ultimately an inconsequential part as the one critic who doesn't seem to have an actual opinion about The Golden Egg.

Mullally, so assured in her previous stage appearances, seems lost as the ditzy first time producer. Employing a weird pigeon-toed shuffle whenever she moves across the stage, Mullally seems unsure just how dumb to make Budder, and appears self-consciously aware of how little sense her character's arc makes. As the playwright of the hour, Broderick is better than he's been in a long time, displaying genuine emotion during a climatic fight with Lane's character. Some of his line readings still feel stilted and forced, but his performance serves as a reminder of the qualities that made him a star in the first place. And saddled with the most ill-defined character of the lot, young Micah Stock struggles to find a signature characteristic to latch onto; like Mullally, Stock would have been better served by embracing his character's stupidity rather than trying to redeem or explain it.

Jack O'Brien, one of the most accomplished and versatile directors working today, fails to bring his signature energy and comedic precision to this piece. Like all of his actors, O'Brien is hamstrung by the weak material, and seems afraid to push the absurdity too far. He doesn't even make particularly good use of Scott Pask's beautiful and well designed set, which is packed with the kind of detail only a Broadway budget can sustain. Ann Roths' costumes are suitably gorgeous, although her most stand-out pieces aren't actually worn; they are the parade of coats Stock collects from unseen celebrity party guests, each one an almost perfect distillation of its owner.

Writing a negative review of It's Only a Play is difficult, because one thing the play does very well is demonstrate how much bad reviews can hurt the individuals who poured their blood, sweat, and tears into a project. So let me be clear: while this production is not the best work of anyone involved, they are all extremely talented and capable artists who have been responsible for some of the most memorable pieces of film and theatre of the past 30+ years. There is an undeniable thrill of seeing them all onstage at the same time, and while the material often lets them down there are still plenty of reminders of what formidable performers they all are. And ultimately, any review of the production is a moot point. It is already a sold out hit, and will likely continue breaking box office records until the end of its limited run in early January. But if you can't afford the $200+ tickets, there's no reason to stress. After all, it's only a play.

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