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Star-Studded Broadway Show Opens, But 'It's Only A Play'


F. Murray Abraham and Megan Mullally join us from New York now. They're just two stars on a crowded marquee in a new production of Terrence McNally's "It's Only A Play" which premiered in 1982, but flop - wait, that's the F word in the theater.

This new production also stars Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, Stockard Channing and Rupert Grint in a truly self-lacerating comedy about a playwright, a self-involved star, a clueless producer, a neurotic British director, a critic who wants to write plays - all of them drinking, kvetching, joking, while they await their first reviews of a new play. So as we mentioned, we have Megan Mullally, who starred for so long in "Will And Grace," for which she won two television Emmys and F. Murray Abraham, who won an Academy award for "Amadeus" and will return this weekend in "Homeland."

Thanks so much for being with us.

F. MURRAY ABRAHAM: Good to be here.

MEGAN MULLALLY: Aw, thanks for having us, Scott.

SIMON: It's felt on the stage a little bit like a repertory company coming together. What was it like for you?

MULLALLY: Well, it has been like that. There's a six degrees of separation happening, which Stockard could probably attest to. I worked with Matthew Broderick in the '90s in a revival of "How To Succeed In Business" on Broadway and I recently worked with Nathan and Jack O'Brien on a little production of "Guys And Dolls" at Carnegie Hall. And Murray goes way back with our playwright, Terrence McNally so there's a lot of crossover so I think we all sort of felt a kinship from the beginning.

SIMON: F. Murray Abraham, is it a pleasure to play a critic who's such a twit?

ABRAHAM: You can call me F., if you'd like. That's perfectly alright.


SIMON: Now, did I get this story right? You just added that to give your name a little more - really?

ABRAHAM: Yeah and I suggest to you know, any actor who's looking for some fame should try that. The F is for famous. Just stick an F in front of you, that's all.

MULLALLY: (Laughter).

SIMON: Well, Mr. F., if I may address you that way - is it a pleasure to play a theater critic who's such a twit?

ABRAHAM: It's a pleasure to do good words and that's what Terrence has written. He writes for actors. It's really fun. It's so healthy to hear people laugh.

SIMON: The play takes some real shots at Ben Brantley, the drama critic of The New York Times. And I mean, I mean the kind of drubbing Alec Baldwin wouldn't utter.


SIMON: And Alec Baldwin, I believe, is you know - well, in any event, does this put Ben Brantley - the distinguished theater critic of The New York Times - in an unfair position? He has to kind of laugh along, doesn't he?

ABRAHAM: We are all laughing at ourselves and no one is spared, whether they're critics, or actors, or writers, no one is spared. It's important to laugh at yourself and I think that he'll have a good laugh.

MULLALLY: And in the end, it's his review of the play that is taken to heart the most profoundly by all of us.

SIMON: Well, I guess that's true - you pay him the compliment of treating him as being important.


ABRAHAM: Oh yeah, no question about it. I don't think it's an unfair play at all in those terms.

MULLALLY: You know, the play skewers everything that is skewer-able about the world of Broadway and theater, but also celebrates the thing that is the most beautiful about it at the end of the day, which is just that pure desire to create something wonderful for an audience. So there's a real purity. There's a distillation of that by the end of the play that's very beautiful and sweet.

ABRAHAM: And the play, in the title itself really says what it is. It's only a play. That's true, but at the same time, it's the most important thing in the world. And that's what I think our Congress is not doing, is remembering what's important and what's not. The difference between that Congress and us is that when we get shot down, we get up and we try to repair things. They just go to sleep. I really am sorry - you're in Washington, D.C. Tell them I said so.

SIMON: I think they'll hear it.

MULLALLY: I'm sure they are listening.

SIMON: They don't rely on my word.

MULLALLY: Anything that I'm on they usually tune in for, so.


SIMON: I understand. So help us understand the mentality that gets lampooned in this play, which seems to be - we battered bastards of Broadway are self-indulgent and pathetically dependent upon the approval of others and aren't we marvelous and isn't the theater amazing?

ABRAHAM: It describes human beings, doesn't it? Hubris, self-indulgent, self-involved - self, self, self. It's everybody.

SIMON: F. Murray Abraham, you once played one of the grapes in a Fruit of the Loom commercial?

ABRAHAM: You know, everyone thinks it was grapes, but in fact, it was a leaf. I mean, the leaf is really - it's a complex character. I mean, it has to change colors, it withers, it blooms. A grape's a grape, you know. I played a leaf.

MULLALLY: I introduced the Egg McMuffin in a McDonald's commercial, back in 1980 in Chicago, or '79 maybe.

SIMON: I might've seen that. So you introduced the Egg McMuffin?

MULLALLY: Yeah, I was the counter girl and it was the introduction of the great McMuffin.

SIMON: Well, let me ask you about your character, Megan Mullally, the producer. A woman of means who, I think, a lot of the actors consider her - correct me if I'm wrong on this - someone who they have to kind of kid along and indulge. Would that be fair?

MULLALLY: My character is the only character who's not cynical, bitter or jaded (laughter). Since "Will And Grace," I've played a lot of snarky characters. And that's fun too, but this gives me a chance to play someone who's just genuinely nice and means well and just loves the theater and theater people and just wants to somehow, in some way, be involved in the creation of something that might be considered art.

SIMON: F. Murray Abraham, your character, the critic. The implication of the line of your character in this play seems to be that critics are people who can't. So they become critics. Fair?

ABRAHAM: It's fair, but it's something - I wish more critics would try to write plays, would take acting classes and directing classes, that would help their criticism a lot, I think. They'll say, the actor was terrible, the design - but the direction was terrific.

Well, who do they think, you know, selected these actors? And who do they think directed them? It's amazing how ignorant they can be about the mechanics of the profession.

SIMON: So what are your characters - what does everybody in the play - what winds up binding them to the theater?

ABRAHAM: Well, the play's the thing.

MULLALLY: Yeah. I think there's just something so wonderful about being able to tell a story from point A to point B to an audience without someone yelling, cut. And to have that, you know, challenge of telling that story eight shows a week and every audience is different. And I love that because it really brings out different things, it makes you think about the story and your character in different ways.

ABRAHAM: And it's the hottest ticket in town and we haven't even opened yet. The word-of-mouth is sensational. I almost don't want to open.

SIMON: Megan Mullally and F. Murray Abraham. They star along with Rupert Grint, Stockard Channing and a couple guys named Broderick and Lane in a newly written revival of Terrence McNally's "It's Only A Play." That opens on October 9. I'm so glad we could get together. Thank you so much.

ABRAHAM: Thanks.

MULLALLY: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.