If "It's Only a Play" were not so hilarious, it may well have been remembered as the meanest comedy ever to name names -- I mean real-live names -- on Broadway. If the entire dream cast of Terrence McNally's backstage revenge play had less than split-millisecond timing, the merciless inside-showbiz observations about the theater and theaterfolk might wound deeper than they amuse.
Instead, McNally's major update and overhaul of his 1985 work is likely to remind the gleefully unrepentant among us of Alice Roosevelt Longworth's quote that, more or less, said, "If you can't say anything good about someone, sit right here by me."
Finding anyplace to sit at this hot-ticket limited run, however, is going to be hard. The production, directed by Jack O'Brien at the sensational top of his game, co-stars Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Stockard Channing,
F. Murray Abraham, Megan Mullally and Rupert Grint (all grown up since "Harry Potter"). Less famous, but not for long, is Micah Stock, making his Broadway debut as the starry-eyed theater newcomer.
He checks coats at the town-house party after the opening of a new play. Everyone who matters has congregated upstairs in the dilettante producer's sleek, silvery beige bedroom (designed by Scott Pask) while guests party downstairs. All await the reviews, specifically that of The New York Times, whose head critic is eviscerated, gratuitously, by name.
Lane revels in the ego and insecurity of the actor with the TV series who turned down a part written for him by his playwright-buddy, underplayed with deft earnestness and panic by Broderick, the comedy's straight man. Channing is delicious as an aging star with drug issues and a parolee's ankle bracelet. Mullally has a dumb-smart way with malaprops as the eager fledgling producer. Grint -- all spiked red hair and raccoon eyes -- is perfectly bratty as the British directing genius, while Abraham skulks creepily around as a vicious critic with an agenda.
Apropos of agendas, McNally appears to set loose all the accumulated hurt and love from his long career. Some targets are as new as the cast of "Matilda." Others -- American playwrights oppressed by the British -- are old gripes in new bottles. And a few -- opening night reviews on TV? -- seem to have sneaked in from the 1985 script. As long as they're not up there laughing at you, however, this is the rare Broadway comedy that's as smart as it is funny.
WHAT "It's Only a Play"
WHERE Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St.
INFO $72-$172; 212-239-6200; itsonlyaplay.com
BOTTOM LINE Good and nasty backstage comedy.