Review: Stellar Cast Aside, “It's Only a Play” Tries a Bit Too Hard to Be Funny

“It’s Only a Play” makes for an exciting way to spend a night, but keep your expectations in check.

This season’s hottest ticket—it’s just opened at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre—is a behind-the-scenes Broadway satire starring a murderer’s row of talent, each in roles that hew closely to the parts that made us love them in the first place. See Mullally, Megan: Karen onWill & Grace.”

It’s also trying to be too many things to too many people, and occasionally tripping over itself in the process.

Playwright Terrence McNally has updated the jokes since “It’s Only a Play” first appeared Off-Off-Broadway in 1982, so James Franco and Shia LaBeouf are now punchlines; Linda Hunt and Charles Nelson Reilly are out. The barbs fly fast and furious, and many fall a notch below Borscht Belt levels: “New York without the theater is Newark,” opines frustrated playwright Peter Austin (Matthew Broderick, taking milquetoast to new heights).

Every kind of character in the vast Broadway Industrial Complex eats crow in McNally’s well-intentioned comedy of fragile egos, which takes place entirely in the boudoir of fledgling producer Julia Budder (Mullally, again playing a New Yorker with too much money on her hands).

Julia, along with her insecure playwright; his best friend, a TV star (Nathan Lane); the play’s leading lady (Stockard Channing, in an ankle bracelet); a theater critic (F. Murray Abraham); and the fresh-faced rent-a-butler (the talented Micah Stock) are on pins and needles (and the occasional quaalude) ahead of reviews for Peter’s new “American” play—wait for it—“The Golden Egg.”

Mullally’s hold-her-head-high producer has sass, but less edge than Karen Walker, of “Will & Grace.” I kept wishing for a sharpness that never materialized, particularly in McNally’s meandering second act.

As James Wicker, the TV star wooed back from L.A. to toast his friend Peter’s opening, Lane’s performance—he’s essentially playing himself—is the most consistently funny, particularly in an ongoing joke about the actor’s masculinity (Mullally and Lane are pictured, below).

Channing, as felonious actress Virginia Noyes, mugs her way through some pretty good one-liners as an old pro who hoped the show would rehab her reputation. Kudos to the sardonic stage vet, who’s doing the whole thing with an injured knee.

F. Murray Abraham seems to be having a swell time as snide critic Ira Drew, who has his own unprofessional agenda for the night—I dare you not to think of his Antonio Salieri! Also going along giddily is Rupert Grint, the one-time “Harry Potter” actor, as the wunderkind director who just once would really love … a flop. Grint makes a hilarious un-Ron Weasley-like entrance, and then tears through the rest of the production behaving like a cross between Billie Joe Armstrong and Richard Branson.

With these marquee stars, you might assume “It’s Only a Play” is aimed squarely at theatergoers looking for a safe night on the town. I guess the idea is to offer a smorgasbord of material and hope for the best, but I suspect most audience members will walk out having gotten perhaps half the jokes.

The piece name-drops Tommy Tune and Tovah Feldshuh and tosses in tired material about Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno; its nods to “A Delicate Balance” and “The Elephant Man” border on obscure. Are the folks lining up for another Lane-Broderick teaming going to follow a one-liner about "Moose Murders,” the 1983 play considered one of the Rialto’s greatest flops?

Theater insiders, on the other hand, will guffaw at the inside cracks about online Broadway chat rooms, but many will feel “It’s Only a Play” lazily misses its mark. Are the people who would get a “Moose Murders” joke going to find tolerable a bit that has Broderick’s playwright revealing the things he’d do for a “good” review: “Put a bag over your head and I’d f—- you, for one,” Peter says to Abraham’s infamous critic. Zoinks.

All that said, there’s also one other thing “It’s Only a Play” is: Review-proof. The comedy, directed by Jack O’Brien, will mint money for its myriad producers (“I am no longer part of the herd of investors who call themselves producers,” Julia says, in one of the play’s sharper observations about the changing industry: “When they call the Tony Award for Best Play, it will be just me going to the podium.”).

Indeed, we high-minded reviewer types will just have to sniff at the sometimes mediocre material … while counting our blessings at having scored free press tickets to the most in-demand show of the fall. In keeping with the self-deprecating spirit of “It’s Only a Play,” I offer this admission: There’s no reason theater reviewers shouldn’t be exposed for the occasionally freeloading louts we are.

“It’s Only a Play,” through Jan. 4, 2015 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St. Tickets: $72-$147. Call Tele-charge, 212-239-6200.

Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn

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