As one of the buzziest and best-selling shows so far this season — though it just opened Thursday — "It's Only a Play" should, by all accounts, be the titular equivalent of a humble-brag.
With Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick onstage together for the first time since “The Producers,” the cast also boasts such big names as Stockard Channing, Megan Mullally and Rupert Grint (in his Broadway debut, as bait for the younger “Harry Potter” crowds). The box office took in $3 million on the first day it opened, such is the power of this all-star vehicle helmed by director Jack O’Brien.
But there's expectations and then there's reality. Unfortunately, "It's Only a Play" is more like the souffle that rises promisingly while it bakes — only to fold as it’s plated. This comedy, too, reveals itself to be no more than good ingredients and hot air.
The plot follows a group of theater people — producer, washed-up actor, would-be actor, drug-addled actress, playwright, director, critic — gathering on the opening night of a new play, desperately awaiting first reviews. It’s crammed with navel-gazing theater jokes and has no plot to speak of.
The story, which Terrence McNally wrote in 1978, has been heavily rewritten to update its references. It now includes easy marks like “Matilda,” and even such recent hits as “Aladdin,” in addition to stalwarts like “The Phantom of the Opera.” It’s also incredibly and sometimes painfully meta, going so far as to have Nathan Lane, in character as James Wicker, make a joke about Nathan Lane.
That being said, a lot of people are going to see it. Here are 10 you can count on:
1. Season ticket holders, for whom this show was produced.
2. Your name-dropping director friend, who wants you to see how much he laughs.
3. Actor/waiter/baristas, who can afford one show each season and think this is what everyone else is seeing.
4. Aspiring playwrights, eager to seethe at the launch of yet another revival.
5. Anyone who actually liked Matthew Broderick’s “The Music Man.”
6. Critics, who will already be in a bad mood because it’s 2.5 hours long.
7. Those still riding the high of Nathan Lane’s “The Nance” (see below).
8. New Match.com couples who are still trying to impress each other.
9. Holiday tourists, who already saw “Kinky Boots” last year.
10. People who expect the title to be ironic, who we pity most of all.
Stay home and watch TV
Instead of wasting money on this “Play,” just stay home and watch “The Nance” on PBS. The play, which ran at the Lincoln Center in 2013, was also directed by Jack O’Brien and starred Nathan Lane. It earned five Tony Award nominations, including a nod for Lane, and took home three. It was taped last year during performances on Aug. 13-14 and has been edited together as part of the Live From Lincoln Center series, airing for the first time Friday at 9 p.m. For more theater news and reviews, follow T. Michelle Murphy on Twitter: @TMichelleMurphy.