NEW YORK (AP) — Some people might call "It's Only A Play" a valentine to the theater, but you mustn't believe them.
Terrance McNally's play is not so much a love letter from a shy, smitten admirer as a mash note sent by a stalker who's written it in capital letters and smeared it with what may be bodily fluids.
Whatever it is, it's a pure hoot, a rollicking comedy with perfect casting and deft direction in Jack O'Brien that gleefully dissects modern Broadway and doesn't pretend to mask its targets by using fake names.
There are jokes about James Franco, Kelly Ripa, Alec Baldwin, Tommy Tune, Liza Minnelli, Shia LaBeouf — in legal trouble, of course — and snide comments about shows like "Matilda the Musical" and "Mamma Mia!" Ben Brantley, the powerful theater critic for The New York Times, is mentioned several times and even becomes the butt of a prank.
Four-time Tony Award-winning McNally has earned his right to laugh — this is his 21st Broadway production — and his knife work is like that of a five-star chef: enough to bleed, but good-naturedly enough to not nick the bone.
The seven-character play, which made its Broadway debut Thursday at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, is an offstage look at theater egos after the curtain comes down. Those in the audience who adore the minutia of the theater world — everyone knows who Tovah Feldshuh is, right? — will laugh the loudest.
Set in the elegant town house of a sweet but daffy producer (Megan Mullally), an opening-night party is raging downstairs for playwright Peter Austin (Matthew Broderick), who is making a nervous Broadway debut.
In the bedroom, his best friend (Nathan Lane) awaits the reviews, along with the play's wunderkind director (Rupert Grint, channeling a punk rock mania), a drama critic (a superb F. Murray Abraham) and the play's leading, but unsteady, lady (wonderful Stockard Channing), who gets lines like: "I do a lot of self-destructive things but I draw the line at television.")
As wisecracks fly, McNally uses the flood of coats that inevitably follow such parties to great effect. A wide-eyed coat check attendant (Micah Stock) periodically pops in with stories about the A-listers attending, his arms filled with coats from the various casts of Broadway shows crashing the soiree.
So we see colorful African-inspired garments from "The Lion King" and leather ones for "Rock of Ages." Even one of Grint's one-time co-stars in the "Harry Potter" films, doesn't escape a joke. Gus appears with a tiny, childlike coat and he says simply, "Daniel Radcliffe."
Lane is the unquestionable star here, at his droll best with perfect timing, mugging when he needs to or raising a haughty eyebrow to sell a joke the next. The rest of the cast — including a really remarkable Broadway debut by Stock in a company of powerful stars — is superb, all hysterical at first and then revealing deeper desires as the play continues.
The only discordant note is with Broderick, who is clearly playing a sort of stand-in for the real playwright. Broderick's character is too soft and earnest for this bunch of loons, and he's allowed too many navel-dazing monologues about the sorry state of theater.
"We have a lot to live up to tonight," he says in one heavy-handed exchange. "It depends on us to remind this city that there is more to Broadway than guest appearances or special effects and revivals or another play from London or another Disney movie made live."
McNally somewhat flails at finding a way for this all to end until landing on a cute — perhaps too cute — resolution. No matter. With Lane onstage, this madcap group gossiping and the coats flying, you'll not want the night to end anyway.
Mark Kennedy can be reached at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits