There's a sense of futility in writing a review of 'It's Only a Play'- a Broadway comedy "about the comedy of Broadway". Set after the opening on a new play, the stock characters eagerly await a critical verdict - most importantly the word of the New York Times' Ben Brantley, whose review the fate of the production eagerly rests. Set entirely in one room, Terrence McNally's comedy manages to show both the importance and ridiculousness of theatre criticism, and the somewhat unfair weight certain reviews carry for the survival of a show.
An all star cast gives ample reason for the revival, which has been updated to within an inch of its life to 'catch all' and attempt to gain a laugh after almost every line. Whilst at times the production feels like each of the stars is competing for stage time, and indeed laughs, Jack O'Brien's direction goes some way to juggling the personalities and keeping their performances from bubbling over. Nathan Lane controls much of the tempo of the piece, barley leaving the stage, falling into familiar territory whilst even managing to make a joke about himself whilst firmly in the character of James.
Stockard Channing stands out as Virginia Noyes, returning to the stage whilst sporting an electronic tag, gaining many of the early laughs with the lion's share of the one liners. Mullally barely breaks sweat as first time Producer Julia, once again falling on her feet with a familiar character, although her wandering accent places her somewhere in the mid-Atlantic region. She brings the right level of ditz and as usual displays excellent comic timing and delivery.
As the saying goes, some people are radiators and some are drains, and the same can certainly be said for actors. Matthew Broderick is perhaps the most draining actor imaginable - firmly set in weedy, droning and pathetic characters, so inhibited by his own rigidness that you simply turn off whenever he begins to speak. He is given the most unlikeable character within the ensemble, Peter the playwright, restricted and stiff in a tailcoat. He saps energy from both his fellow actors and the audience and is completely overshadowed by even the dog who only makes an appearance at the curtain call. At times when the play begins to drag, it is Broderick who indulges the most, grinding the play to a halt to only be picked up again by Nathan Lane. Great to see nothing has changed since 'The Producers'...
Micah Stock shines in the role of 'Gus', the fresh-off-the-boat aspiring actor who has been hired to collect coats, yet becomes embroiled in the comedy. Amongst a familiar troupe of actors, he gives a refreshing performance and completely holds his own against the huge personalities that fill the stage. Rupert Grint overplays the 'wunderkind' director Frank and feels out of place, awkward and wooden, not quite grasping the full potential of the role, or its function in the piece.
Whilst the updated text is stuffed full of contemporary theatre references there is much to enjoy regardless of how up to date you may be with the current Broadway season. Jokes regarding other shows and productions come thick and fast, yet the show is the first to laugh at itself with comments on the nature of celebrity casting and the amount of egos in the room. Like eating a huge greasy meal - 'It's Only a Play' is likely to delight in the moment, but provides little to be savoured or fondly remembered.
"All the cast members fulfill their raisons d’être, which is to sling a whole lot of mud in the nicest possible way. As for Mr. McNally’s play itself...it mostly has the depth of a shot glass (and I mean that in the nicest possible way). It is to Broadway what Neil LaBute’s 'The Money Shot,'...is to Hollywood - an R-rated sitcom satire with some very funny jokes."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Besides good old dependable Nathan Lane, this diversion has good timing going for it. People are desperate for laughs and comedies on Broadway are bloody rare. If only McNally’s 'Play' was more well-done."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"Mullally and Lane alone are almost worth the price of admission, with a sense of timing that’s a thing of wonder. As for the rest? It’s barely a play."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"Jack O’Brien’s shiny, bouncy production looks great and hey it’s McNally: there are good bitchy one-liners here and there. But too few. Only a play? It’s barely a play."
David Cote for Time Out New York/NY1
"It seemed to be a dream cast: Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Stockard Channing, Megan Mullally, F. Murray Abraham. But, like children, stars don't always play well together. The result is that Terrence McNally's comedy 'It's Only a Play' is only amusing rather than drop-dead funny."
Robert Feldberg for The Record
"Theatergoers who pay top dollar – and higher – to see the show will not be disappointed by its classy looks and energetic playing, even though 'It’s Only A Play' winds down long before it is over."
Michael Sommers for New Jersey Newsroom
"It's in Lane's dynamite early scenes with gifted newcomer Micah Stock that this funny if flimsy comedy really fires on all cylinders, while Broderick underwhelms in a key role."
David Rooney for The Hollywood Reporter
"Laugh if you must — and you really must laugh at McNally’s unquenchable wit — but those sloppy-kiss tributes to the theater delivered by Peter and James are deeply felt and honestly moving. And if you don’t share the gooey sentiments, you really shouldn’t be at this show."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...