I have to credit Jack O’Brien, the director, and lead producer Tom Kirdahy for delivering what is unquestionably the hottest ticket in town as we hit the mid-season mark. I say that because every element in this production spells “Hit!”. Scott Pask’s set of the upstairs drawing room in a swank New York brownstone, and the equally haute coutour gowns of Ann Roth that will adorn the ladies in the cast let us know right off that high class hijinx will unravel along with the plot.
A coat check lad enters the empty room, laden down with expensive outer garments (even they earn laughs), so we know a party is happening downstairs. Moments later when Nathan Lane bursts through the door accompanied by a huge hand from the audience, the words “star quality” come to mind. But that’s only the beginning.
Author Terrence McNally does write some very funny lines for James Wicker (Mr. Lane) and for Gus. P. Head the boy just off the bus, on his first night in New York, (that would be Micah Stock, making an auspicious Broadway debut.) In the next minutes, one by one, Stockard Channing, Megan Mullally, F.Murray Abraham, Matthew Broderick and Rupert Grint will arrive, each and every one greeted by entrance applause.
Champagne is served, wine is swilled, liquor is available. It’s Opening Night of a new play by Peter Austin (Matthew Broderick), produced by Julia Budder (Megan Mullally) a wealthy and determined theatre nut in whose home we are all partying. Virginia Noyes, (Stockard Channing) who starred in the night’s offstage play is a nervous wreck because she has no idea how it went, and Ira Drew (F. Murray Abraham) a major and much feared critic, is not talking. The wunderkind director is Frank Finger (Rupert Grint) boy wonder, strangely dressed as an exotic on lend lease from Britain.
It’s not a new genre. Moss Hart dealt with it in his Light Up The Sky which ran for 214 performances in 1949 right next door at the Royale Theatre (now the Bernard Jacobs). George Kaufman and Edna Ferber filled a house full of actors and other interesting characters in The Royal Family, not a play about an opening night, but pure Broadway all the way. Even the venerable Rodgers and Hammerstein, in Me and Juliet with less success, tackled the “big black giant”, which is what one of its characters called The Audience on Broadway. Terrence McNally has now signed up to do his own Opening Night play, and as with the one by Moss Hart, it takes place before, during and after the opening of playwright Peter Austin’s play. It takes place now, but Producer Julia Budder is the sole backer and producer, which gets lots of laughs as we know that nowadays it takes an army of them, and when their play wins a Tony Award at season’s end, one can watch as dozens of them bounce up the stage steps to enjoy their moment in the sun.
McNally is a craftsman and though there is no substance to this piece – don’t look for metaphor or meaning – it’s polished and funny. As mentioned earlier, Jack O’Brien, Scott Pask and Ann Roth have staged it and dressed it up elegantly so we are perfectly content to laugh all night as we revel in the familiar specialties of these six stars and the neophyte Mr. Stock who will soon be joining his co-players with billing as large as theirs.
Nathan Lane has never been funnier as playwright Austin’s best friend Jimmy Wicker, currently in his ninth season on a sitcom that made him unavailable to play the lead in the play that opened tonight. You can bet much mirth will be forthcoming from that situation alone. Stockard Channing has done something odd to her face, but her performance is hilarious as she moves from deep despair to heady delight, often in the same sentence, depending on the latest bulletin from the outside world with regard to the play.
Megan Mullally has retreated to the voice that made her famous on “Will and Grace”. I know that’s her choice because she didn’t have it in Annapurna in which she recently appeared off Broadway. I don’t think she needed it – she looks stunning, and is a natural clown who finds just the right qualities to make us believe she is stage struck, filthy rich, and deep down very sweet and loyal.
Murray Abraham earns laughs as the enemy of the people, the critic. Matthew Broderick is still playing Ferris Beuller which is a little odd as he is now all grown up, but it’s an endearing performance and contrasts nicely in its quietude with the more ferocious approach of the others. Rupert Grint doesn’t have a lot to do but be odd, and he manages very nicely at accomplishing that.
I return to my opening remarks about Tom Kirdahy and Jack O’Brien. Mr. Kirdahy is relatively new to show business, having had a meaningful career as a lawyer, but now that he has married Terrence McNally he has been devoting himself to that excellent writer’s work, and he’s supplied a first class cast and production values to this frothy offering. He’s also promoted it beautifully and it’s going to be the staple in the McNally oeuvre. I groan at the thought of every high school in the land doing it in a year or two because it really needs expert farceurs to keep it afloat, but right now it seems to be appealing not only to show biz fanatics, but to young and old from the real world as well.
If you’re looking for laughs and are not too concerned about the back stories of its characters, this one is a fine example of a smash Broadway comedy about those old reliable funsters, the good folk of show biz.
Its Only a Play is onstage through March 23, 2015 at Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre 236 West 45th Street, NYC
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Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.