When we go into a Terrence McNally play, we have certain expectations. Maybe that’s our fault, but with Mothers and Sons fresh in our minds and Ragtime forever playing in the back of our minds, it’s hard to reconcile the straight up comedy that we saw. We expect to be moved by a Terrence McNally play. We want to laugh, yes, but also cry. So, it was just a little strange to see this early work (updated for today), It’s Only a Play.
There was a lot to like about It’s Only a Play, and that was mostly the cast. Megan Mullally and Nathan Lane especially led this show. Megan’s odd southern accent and bright optimism in her producer character nailed that type of rich person who just wants to do something fun with their money. And Nathan Lane is Nathan Lane and is great in anything, even The Addams Family (joked about in this show). We were also “introduced” (as their posters say) to Micah Stock. He was fantastic as the coat check guy, who is allowed into this crazy world, and gives the best rendition of Defying Gravity on a Broadway stage this side of 49th street. The rest of the cast was great, though with so much going on, the outsized characters played by Stockard Channing, F. Murray Abraham, and Rupert Grint got to be a bit much. Matthew Broderick was apparently doing his Matthew Broderick thing and seeming to float his way through everything, even his long and strange monologues on “Great American Theatre.”
The play itself was wacky and fun, though sometimes seemed to try a little too hard. There’s a bit with the coats of guests coming in, and one of the running jokes is that casts of other Broadway shows are crashing the party. But their coats look like costumes from the shows and we all know you’re not allowed to leave the theatre in your costume! For a show that calls out real people and makes very real New York theatre references, bits like this for the sake of a laugh take a way from the reality. If you’re going to have Nathan Lane mention The Addams Family (and Nathan Lane), then you have to mention Curious Incident, not make up a show when talking about those imports from London. Shows about New York often have jokes that are for New Yorkers and jokes that are for tourists. It’s Only a Play had some fantastic jokes for New Yorkers, but too many terrible jokes for tourists. If there could be a better balance and a little more heart, it might feel like a Terrence McNally play.