Sunday, May 24, 2015

'It's Only A Play' Plays It Strictly For Laughs

Terrence McNally's It's Only A Play has had a storied history.
It was originally created in 1978 and then produced in 1982 and again in 1985 and 1992.
The original 1978 version of the play was called Broadway, Broadway. It starred Geraldine Page and James Coco and closed during tryouts in Philadelphia.
But the play just wouldn't die. It kept coming back in different, updated versions.
Now, it's finally made it to Broadway where it's completing (on June 7) a run that began last October 9.
In it's glossy new Broadway version, It's Only A Play is a big-time star vehicle once again pairing Broadway's hottest couple (Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane) in a raucous piece with an ensemble that includes Stockard Channing, F. Murray Abraham and Katie Finneran with Jack O'Brien at the helm directing.
This is a play about opening night on Broadway. It's a play about a play.
Here's how it goes: A wealthy first-time Broadway producer, Julia Budder (Finneran), is throwing an opening night party for The Golden Egg at her luxurious Manhattan home. The playwright Peter Austin (Broderick), the director, the actors, along with assorted friends and hangers-on (including a critic) nervously wait for the late-night reviews printed in the newspapers. Meanwhile they gossip and throw out the names of the celebrities who are in attendance. Virginia Noyes (Channing), the star of the show, is taking drugs. James Wicker (Lane), an old friend of the playwright, is now a successful TV actor who turned down the lead in the play, and is relieved and secretly thrilled about the bad reviews that arrive. And, although Ira Drew (Abraham) is a theater critic, he is very critical of the theater because he has no talent to actually participate, despite his secretly writing plays. Not discouraged by the bad reviews for The Golden Egg, the assembled parties eagerly make plans for their next play, which they know will be a hit.
One of the problems with It's Only A Play is that the characters are really all caricatures. They are basically exaggerated cutouts of classic Broadway types: the aging Hollywood star who snorts cocaine; the former Broadway star who sold out to TV; the frustrated critic; the naive young actor/wannabe; the anguished director; the idle-rich producer and the head-in-the-clouds playwright. On top of this, there's virtually no character development here. The play is simply constructed as a showcase for clever lines and over-the-top performances.
So, it's left to the actors to ham it up and make the most of their lines and their overblown personalities. And, there are some real funny lines and lots of inside-Broadway jokes. The humor often hits the bullseye and the audience laughs so much that the whole affair is nothing short of uproarious. Lane can milk a line better than an Iowa farmhand and when Channing deadpans you're witnessing Broadway gold. But Broderick is somewhat off the mark and there's not enough interplay between him and Lane. Plus, the whole setup takes too long, tying up a first act that is way too verbose.
In the second act the pace quickens and the ensemble seems to gel a lot better. Still, the ending might leave you feeling like you've been had. Very little actually happened in the course of the evening (it's all pretty much in real time) and somehow, we're back where we started. Too clever by half?
But, where else can you see an assemblage of talent like this? And how often will you hear this many wisecracks -- many of them triggering real, live belly laughs? The swipes at the Brits are delightfully telling. The jibes at Broadway's new love of mammoth productions loaded with special effects are warranted. And even the Jersey jokes are funny.
Remember the title: It's Only A Play.
And, indeed it is!

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