It’s only a (not very good) play

On our recent weekend in New York, we saw two Broadway shows. The first was a revival of the classic musical On the Town, which I thought was spectacular. I wrote about it briefly here. The show is still in previews; it opens officially next week.

The second show we saw was a revival of the Terence McNally backstage comedy It’s Only a Play. The show was one on a list of recommended productions that we asked for from a writer whom we greatly respect and who sees a lot of New York theater in a professional capacity. Given the price of a ticket to a Broadway show, the recommendations were a favor and I wish we had had the time to take in the other shows on his list.

Like On the Town, It’s Only a Play was also in previews. The show having opened this week, Ben Brantley’s New York Times review has now been published here, and it is favorable.

Starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, I thought the show couldn’t be bad, but we found it excruciating. We left at intermission. Nevertheless, the standing room only audience seemed to lap it up, laughing at all the jokes that left us stone-faced. Brantley mentions that this run of the show is already sold out.

Brantley’s name appears liberally in the comedy (updated by McNally) as the reviewer holding the power of life and death over the play that gives the comedy its title. Brantley’s review deals with this about as you might expect, but parenthetically lets on that the show “is roughly an hour too long.” That amounts to “roughly” half the show. Brantley also demonstrates the modus operandi of McNally’s theatrical in-jokes. They really aren’t very funny.

Reading the review carefully, I think Brantley provides a little lesson in the art of esoteric writing used by many political writers in the pre-Enlightenment era. The writer implants contradictions in the text of his work that the philosophical reader must think through on his own to discover the writer’s true teaching. Brantley has a message that he wants to convey to the close reader to whom it can be entrusted but it is a message that he does not feel at liberty to divulge plainly.

UPDATE: My copy of Friday’s Wall Street Journal was not delivered yesterday, so I missed Terry Teachout’s review. Terry’s review of the show is excerpted here (he liked it).

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