A Broadway opening night party can be glamorous, as guests ogle celebrities at the bar and buffet line. But for the show’s producers, stars, and director, anxiety runs beneath the revelry as they wait for the judgment of those unpredictable critics.
Four-time Tony Award winner Terrence McNally has turned this unique rite of theatrical passage into the uproarious and oh-so-timely comedy It’s Only a Play, now at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.
Set on opening night of a drama with the unpromising title The Golden Egg, It’s Only a Play boasts a cast of Broadway superstars: Matthew Broderick as the nervous playwright; Nathan Lane as his best friend, an actor who left Broadway for TV fame; Stockard Channing as the play’s drug-addled leading lady; Megan Mullally as the neophyte producer; and F. Murray Abraham as a fearsome theater critic who crashes the party. Representing the younger generation are Harry Potter film star Rupert Grint as the play’s bratty British director, and newcomer Micah Stock as a starry-eyed coat-check attendant.
The moment Lane enters the sumptuous master bedroom suite in Mullally’s townhouse, the name-dropping begins, with one-liners referencing everyone from Kelly Ripa and Catherine Zeta-Jones to Daniel Radcliffe and Lady Gaga. The words Harvey Fierstein elicit laughs no less than three times, and McNally mines humor from Dancing With the Stars, selfies, and even the Ebola virus. Amazingly, the actors deliver these comic nuggets and dozens more without losing their composure.
“Every person we sent the play to said yes,” McNally says of his A-list cast, adding with a laugh, “It’s the first time that’s happened!” Of course, the stars knew what they’d be getting into, since an earlier version of It’s Only a Play opened Off-Broadway in 1986 to a rave from the ultimate fearsome critic Frank Rich of The New York Times. An even earlier version, which closed out of town in 1978, had been inspired by the disastrous reception given to a Broadway comedy called Legend starring none other than F. Murray Abraham. McNally notes that his own first play, And Things That Go Bump in the Night, was panned by critics almost 50 years ago.
“We’re calling this production a revival,” the 75-year-old playwright explains, “but I’m working on it as if it were a new play. Well over 90 percent of the text is new, and I’ve removed one character [a taxi driver]. Theater has changed so much in the past 20 years, and I didn’t want to do this as a period piece. There are so many more revivals and long-running musicals now. On opening night, you used to have to go to The New York Times to get the review at 1 a.m. Now all the reviews are on the internet by 10.”
McNally is particularly delighted that his longtime collaborator Nathan Lane and the other veteran actors are joined by two cast members making their Broadway debuts. “This is an ensemble piece,” he points out, “and I’m proud to introduce Micah Stock and Rupert Grint, who is a big deal because of the Harry Potter movies. When you see all the young people in the audience, he is the reason.”
The British-born Grint admits with a laugh that he has never attended an opening night party in real life. The 26-year-old’s only previous stage credit was a 2013 West End production of Jez Butterworth’s drama Mojo, but you’d never know that from his assured and hilarious performance as director Frank Finger in It’s Only a Play. Clad in an eye-popping print suit, his red hair gelled like a rock star’s, Grint makes a vivid comic impression as an arrogant critics’ darling, lamenting with a pout, “I can’t help it — I was born charismatic.”
“When I read the script, I loved the character immediately,” says Grint, who is much more low-key in conversation than “Sir” Frank. “He’s already been knighted and is on top of his game, but he’s sick of being glorified. He’s also a borderline kleptomaniac, bold and ridiculous and kind of crazy, which is really, really fun for me. The play has such a rich variety of characters, all wanting different things from the reviews.”
Soon after accepting the part during a Skype interview with director Jack O’Brien, Grint found himself in rehearsal with five legendary American stage stars. “On the first day, I thought, What have I gotten myself into?” he recalls with a laugh. “I was terrified, but everyone was really welcoming, and the audience response has been amazing.” Recalling a backstage visit with his Harry Potter costar Daniel Radcliffe during Radcliffe’s Broadway run of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Grint says, “Dan was just shaking with excitement, and I felt that I definitely wanted to have a go” at Broadway.
McNally and his young costar agree that it’s not necessary to be a Broadway expert to appreciate the humor in It’s Only a Play. “I’m certainly not trying to make this a snob play for people ‘in the know,’” the playwright says. “Master Class is the most performed of my plays, and it’s about Maria Callas teaching people to sing obscure 19th century music. If you write characters honestly and truthfully, audiences will identify with them. I’m proud of the fact that I’ve made the arts more visible.”
A half century after debuting on Broadway with a flop, McNally is enjoying success in multiple artistic arenas. In addition to the Broadway premiere of It’s Only a Play, his 1991 comedy Lips Together, Teeth Apart is being revived at Second Stage in October, his libretto for the original opera Great Scott will debut in Dallas in 2015, and director Mike Nichols is prepping a movie adaptation of Master Class starring Meryl Streep.
“I’m on top of the world right now,” says McNally, marveling over the many “six degrees of separation” reunions in It’s Only a Play. There’s Lane and Broderick, costars of The Producers and The Odd Couple; Broderick and Mullally, sweethearts in the 1995 How to Succeed revival; McNally and Lane, who worked together on Love! Valour! Compassion! and other plays in the 1990s; and McNally and Abraham, whose flop inspired the entire evening. “It’s a small community of talented people,” McNally says of Broadway, “and we’re having the time of our lives.”