“My first night in New York and I’m high-fiving Denzel Washington”
Of everything that I saw or considered seeing in New York, It’s Only A Play possibly best exemplifies the dilemma I faced. Being such an actor junkie, the prospect of Stockard Channing and Nathan Lane and Megan Mullally (the latter two for the first time) was hugely tempting but I could scarcely ignore the fact that they were in a backstage farce. But the lure of the Lane was strong and so I booked myself in, hoping that low expectations would allow me to enjoy it.
And did I? I can’t really say, even now. I certainly laughed quite a bit, chuckling along with the theatre industry references of which there were masses and marvelling at how many modern touches Terrence McNally had managed to stuff into his updated text (James Franco’s x-rated selfies, Shia LeBeouf’s erratic behaviour and Alec Baldwin’s red-hot temper just a few that I can recall). But the whole thing does still feel curiously old-fashioned and perhaps a little self-satisfied.
The biggest problem is that the satirical edge on which so much of the play is based is entirely blunted by the realities (or indeed necessities) of star casting and the fact that this production has a pretty much sold-out run. Set at the afterparty of a opening night being held at the producer’s townhouse, the play (as opposed to the play-within-the-play) is essentially one long in-joke about the theatre as thespian stereotypes anxiously await first night reviews and rip their industry apart whilst waiting.
That the show slags off the idea of star casting whilst engaging in that very practice could well be the starting point for something amusingly meta but that is far from the mark here. ‘im from Harry Potter is solely here to put bums on seats. And it has worked. How funny. Additionally, the theatre world of 1986, when it was originally written, was a different place and no amount of topical gags can disguise that – McNally really does try to have his cake and eat it here with paeans to misunderstood playwrights and insults for deluded theatre critics.
And for every good casting decision, there appears to an equal and bad one. Nathan Lane is sensationally good, his conversational patter as actor James Wicker something wickedly enjoyable to behold and feeling as if it has been freshly improvised. But frequent co-star Matthew Broderick as playwright Peter Austin is criminally wooden, hampered by McNally’s worst excesses of preachiness to be sure, but also singularly failing to inject any kind of real life into his performance.
Channing’s leading lady has a vibrantly diva-esque presence but Mulally’s manic schtick feels far too forced; Micah Scott makes a sterling Broadway debut as the coatchecker (whose initial chemistry with Lane at the show’s start unfairly raised expectations!) but Rupert Grint show no aptitude for comedy as a British auteur (though there’s a good line about an all-male Medea). That he’s no good further advances the meta-potential but no, he’s simply there to get people in – the very point the play mocks.
Which would be fine if there was the merest hint of self-awareness about it, but this really isn’t the place for that. I’m glad to have seen Nathan Lane, he really did make it worthwhile, but I’d struggle to ever recommend this to anyone I know. Instead, this is a crowd-pleasing bit of fun for those who like that sort of thing.