Question: "Why the black tie?" Answer: It's Only a Play.
The assembled parties filing into the Schoenfeld Oct. 9 were a spiffy-looking lot, all decked out in tuxes and such (the first time this has come up short of Tony Night in quite a spell). They had come to see Terrence McNally's everything-old-is-new-again comedy, It's Only a Play, a Broadway update of his 1986 Off-Broadway antic, and you can be sure the ensuing "inside" zingers and arrows busted a cummerbund or two.
The people on the other side of the footlights were likewise stylishly turned out: Megan Mullally in a elaborate white lace creation, as the ditzy producer who offers up her posh apartment for an opening-night party; Stockard Channing in a glittery gold-and-black gown, as the leading lady of the play being celebrated; Matthew Broderick in an old-fashioned white-tie and tails (his father's), as the playwright; Nathan Lane in a more contemporary and conventional tuxedo, as his best friend who flew in from the West Coast for the event; a not-readily-recognizable F. Murray Abraham in a flowing mane of hair, as the critic on the premises; Rupert Grint in a busy Brit suit, as the London wunderkind who directed the play; and a casually attired Micah Stock, as a fresh-off-the-bus rube turned coat-attendant-for-the-night who periodically deposits bizarre bundles of wintry nightwear on the producer's bed.
Hat's off to Ann Roth for all of the above — and, while we're at it, to Scott Pask for summoning up a sumptuous bedroom (replete with disco lighting if you push the wrong button). Here is where the audience spends the entire play while the party guests rage on colorfully offstage. Shia LaBeouf does a quick cameo before being whisked away by police. A la the John Simon-Sylvia Miles incident, critic Abraham is crowned with a plate of lasagna by Patti LuPone (and kicked by Alec Baldwin). Breaking out into impromptu song: Betty Buckley, Renee Fleming and Catherine Zeta-Jones. The name of the play is asking for it: The Golden Egg. I'm not saying it's a bad play, BUT the tabloid-tainted leading lady accidentally sets off her ankle bracelet in Act Two and is forced to improvise a dance. I'm not saying it's a bad play, BUT the moppets in Matilda lob a snowball through the producer's penthouse window ("I can't understand a word they're saying!"). I'm not saying it's a bad play, BUT it takes a hunk of the second act to read, in relays, the blistering review in The New York Times from Ben Brantley (a name that is dropped eight times, and usually in italics).
Throughout all of this, except for a minute or two at the outset, Nathan Lane makes a Nathan Lane of himself, delivering a comedic tour de force in his customary off-the-cuff fashion, slinging zingers like lightning bolts, connecting one-on-one with all. At the (real) party for It's Only a Play, mercifully held across the street at the Marriott Marquis in its spacious Ballroom, he did not look appreciably depleted, but he did agree that spending the duration of the show on stage was pretty heavy lifting. "It's a long night," he sighed. Still, he put a happy face on it: "It's a little like being the host of a talk show. Everyone keeps coming on, and you have a new conversation.
"It's fun to be part of an ensemble like this. You get to come out in evening clothes and say witty things. Then, as the evening goes on, people start saying things they wouldn't ordinarily. It's fun to see this disintegration of the group, and then somehow — y'know, there's no people like show people — by the end they sorta rally, and we go on. You can beat us down till we're bloody, but we will get up and go on."
The character he plays is a visiting friend-of-the-court with a conflicting ulterior motive. "He's an actor who started Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway and got a pilot. The show has run almost ten years, so he has become a very successful actor. He's come back because one of his closest friends who he started out with in the theatre has written a play for Broadway. He was offered the play and turned it down because he didn't care for it, so, on some level, he's hoping it won't do well and feels like he dodged a bullet when he sees it, yet he wants his friend to get a good review.
"Terrence has done a substantial rewrite, updating it and adding stuff to the playwright's part about where we are today in the theatre and on Broadway — all the reasons he wanted to have a play of his on Broadway, and now that doesn't really exist anymore. The only way to change it is by writing something challenging."
Lane, who wears self-depreciation like a flag, comes in for a few hits himself — and at least one was self-administered. "My original line was 'What do I know? What do any of us old gypsies know? I loved The Rink.' Terrence was looking for something he had written that didn't go well so he could have a joke on himself. We tried Deuce, but no one remembered Deuce so we tried several different things. Finally I said, 'I know you want to do a joke on yourself, but let's do The Addams Family because it's well known. It got terrible reviews, yet it still ran. So it might work.' And it does."
The Addams Family was not a flop in the conventional sense ("You couldn't kill it with a stick!"). Nor was Merlin, the Doug Henning musical he did ("The show that wouldn't disappear!"). And this one comes nowhere near a flop, but It's Only a Play only runs through Jan. 4, 2015. On Jan. 5, Lane boards a plane for Chicago to start rehearsals for The Iceman Cometh, which will cometh to BAM in the spring. A real change of pace, that! His previous dramatic highpoint (flecked with great humor, to be sure) was The Nance, which was taped for television and will premiere Oct. 10 on PBS. That was his first outing with director Jack O'Brien. It was followed by a one-night-only Carnegie Hall reprise of Guys and Dolls (with Mullally a superb Miss Adelaide to Lane's Nathan Detroit) and, making it an unbroken winning streak, It's Only a Play.
O'Brien joined McNally on stage for a final curtain call with the cast but was M.I.A. for most of the performance. "I avoided as much of it as I could," the director admitted. "There's nothing more useless than a director on opening night. Nobody wants your damn notes. I love them so, and I believe in them. I knew this was going to be a tricky evening because anticipation was high and the crowd is very inside. And you know what? We're better when the crowd isn't an inside crowd. It's slightly naughty. It shows us being vulnerable. And it is the universality of the work we do that is similar to everybody's hopes when they're dashed and how you pick yourself up and go at it again. It's a very interesting play underneath a very funny play."
McNally summed up his own affection for the profession in five little words and handed them to his playwright to say: "New York without theatre is Newark."
It may turn out to be the most quoted line of the season — and several seasons to come — but its author can't say if it was in previous drafts of the play. "Ninety-five percent of the play has been redone, but the situation's pretty similar. There was a character that vanished in the rewrite [the lady cab driver who delivered The Times review, played in early incarnations by Florence Stanley and Doris Roberts]. You don't need to go to The New York Times building. You get the review online."
If It's Only a Play is a blatant valentine to the theatre, it's not without a few prickly patches. One jab at Faye Dunaway, who starred in McNally's Master Class, drew moans. "I don't have an axe to grind with her, but she wouldn't be happy with that line — and I don't think Catherine Zeta-Jones would like the line about her singing."
The only sign of mean-spiritedness is an error of omission — leaving out the Post's Broadway-needler, Michael Riedel. "I won't tell you who, but someone said, 'If you want to make Michael upset, don't mention him in the play. He'll really be upset.'" In his Broadway debut, the 26-year-old Grint (Ron Weasley of the "Harry Potter" series), comes on like a fireball as the masochistic British director, a darling of the critics. His references: "I've been fortunate to have a lot of different directors, and I picked something from all of them to an extent — even Jack. It's that kind of energy."
Broderick, graying nicely as befits a playwright, didn't have to look far for a model, either. "It's kinda Terrence, I guess. Terrence keeps telling me, 'You're me! You're me!' I did enjoy playing the part because I admire Terrence so much. Also I like playing someone who can be nasty sometimes. I don't get to do that much."
He ran the press gauntlet with the beautiful wife in tow, dressed-to-win as usual. "At the last minute, I found a dress," Sarah Jessica Parker said, sweetly downplaying the glamorous effect. "It's Elie Saab. I have to give it back in the morning. It's not mine." Broderick praised the company he was keeping. "The fun was in the room. The people in the room were so good. That made it fun to show up. It was also fun to share all these horror stories. We've all been through things that didn't work. My horror stories — oh, man, I have a whole bunch. I don't remember who said it, but somebody said of my Brighton Beach Memoirs, 'He's funny at first but quickly becomes cloying.' That's always worried me." And that's one of the roles that got him a Tony!
Mullally had no problem conjuring up her worst opening night: "Young Frankenstein. I was just so nervous. There were so many eyes on that show, and people just weren't rooting for us. It was difficult and it was disillusioning. I was idealistic and I went into it thinking, 'Oh, how fun! We get to do this great musical and get to work with Mel Brooks and all these amazing people.' It was quite hurtful to me because I was disillusioned. I've gotten my joie de vivre back and intact by now, I think, but it's hard to go through something like that. People commented on my weight. I was called matronly, And I thought that was beside the point."
Stealing just about everybody's thunder and scenes is the high-strung, drugged-out actress advanced by Channing, who's at the top of her game here. "She's an actress who has been in the theatre, went into movies, has had a certain kind of life problem having to do with chemicals, shall we say. To her, the play will turn it all around."
It's the first time she has ever played an actress, but it's obvious she understands the breed. "What I like about her is that she is so extravagant and it's justified," Channing said. "She's really somebody hanging by her fingernails, and, in the end, she just picks herself up — a little — and starts all over again, like we all do." Abraham has a field day with the self-important critic who is really a latent playwright. He, too, has to hand it to his co-stars. "It's the best company I've ever worked with, ever. They're all the very best at what they do. Nathan's The Man."
Last but not least is the first person on the stage. It is Stock's first Broadway production, and he makes his debut the hard way — sharing the stage with Nathan Lane the first 15 or so minutes. He makes an excellent Bud Abbott.
"Nathan is such a generous actor, and he's so funny and so talented, but beyond that he's so kind both on and off stage. I really enjoyed being on stage with him. He's totally there. He's 100% in the moment. In a comedy like this, you have to take in the audience as well. In a two-person scene, there are actually three people on stage — you, your scene partner and the audience, especially in a comedy like this."
As appropriate as the black ties was the star-turnout. Many of them heard their names dropped on stage: Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, Mike Nichols and Diane Sawyer, Roger Rees, Michael Feinstein and Ginny Mancini, Martin Moran and Marin Mazzie, Julie Taymor, Roma Torre (looking great), Nick Offerman, John Slattery and Talia Balsam, Norman Lear, Angela Lansbury, Marilu Henner, Tonya Pinkins, Marsha Mason, T.R. Knight, John Cameron Mitchell, Stephen Schwartz and Eddie Izzard.
The tallest and the shortest of New York's Texans were in attendance: Tommy Tune and Liz Smith. Tune hooted wildly when a massive gray fur coat was thrown on the bed and identified as his. "I have a coat just like that," he said, "but it's real raccoon."