'The Play That Goes Wrong': Theater Review

Jeremy Daniel
From left: Jonathan Sayer, Greg Tannahill, Henry Lewis, Dave Hearn and Charlie Russell in 'The Play That Goes Wrong'
The title proves unintentionally ironic.

J.J. Abrams is among the Broadway transfer producers of this hit British comedy about an amateur theater troupe's disastrous attempt at staging a murder mystery.

Something went wrong for me at The Play That Goes Wrong. For more than two hours, I managed only a few chuckles while hundreds of people surrounding me were laughing uproariously. Humor is obviously very subjective, but the experience was nonetheless a bit humbling, especially considering the comic mayhem on display was perfectly executed. 

The show has been a big hit in London, where it won several prizes including the 2015 Olivier Award for best new comedy. Devised by the Mischief Theatre, founded by a group of graduates of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), it arrives on Broadway courtesy of a lineup of heavyweight producers that includes J.J. Abrams.

Featuring the original West End cast, the evening purports to be a production by “The Cornley University Drama Society” of an original, vintage-style murder mystery dubbed The Murder at Haversham Manor. The play is proudly introduced by its director, Chris Bean (Henry Shields), who, according to the fake program, assumes virtually every other creative role as well, including prop maker and box office manager. In addition to the cast of hapless thespians, there’s also a stage manager (Nancy Zamit) and an incompetent sound/lighting operator (Rob Falconer) who’s mainly concerned with his missing Duran Duran CD.

The conceit — the only idea, really — of The Play That Goes Wrong is that, well, everything goes crazily wrong. An onstage corpse refuses to stay still. Props go missing or fail to function properly. Words get mispronounced, cues get missed, and any of the actors silly enough to stand next to a closed door gets knocked unconscious when it suddenly opens. Paint thinner stands in for booze, with the result that the actors are constantly spitting it out. The stage manager is forced to go on for the injured leading lady (Charlie Russell) — she stood next to a door, naturally — only to find herself adrift when she drops the pages of her script. When the leading lady wakes up and tries to resume her role, a catfight of epic proportions breaks out. As for the set — houses of cards are more sturdily constructed.

Written by three of the castmembers, the show bears no small debt to Michael Frayn’s classic farce, Noises Off, but it pales by comparison. Revived on Broadway in 2016, Noises Off showed what was going on backstage as well as on, and gave us characters and situations we actually cared about. This effort is pure slapstick from first moment to last, and wears very thin over a two hour-plus running time. It originally began as a fringe show in a theater located at a pub, and it’s easy to imagine that it played much better with a few drinks under one’s belt and at half the running time.

The production certainly fulfills its modest creative aspirations. The actors are very good at being bad and are so daring with the outrageous physical comedy that we often fear for their safety. There’s no paucity of wit to the proceedings, and director Mark Bell stages the action with clockwork precision. Nigel Hook’s purposefully cheesy set design deserves special commendation, rivaling Disney’s Haunted Mansion with the ingenuity of its surprises.

But for all the strenuous effort involved, the repetitive show evaporates in your mind the moment it concludes. At one point in the evening, a performer breaks the fourth wall and yells at us with mock consternation for laughing at what is supposed to be a serious play. Angrily addressing one audience member while pointing to another, he scolds, “Why can’t you be like that man? 45 minutes, and he hasn’t laughed once.” Although he wasn’t, he might well have been referring to me.

Venue: Lyceum Theatre, New York
Cast: Rob Falconer, Dave Hearn, Henry Lewis, Charlie Russell, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields, Greg Tannahill, Nancy Zamit
Playwrights: Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields
Director: Mark Bell
Set designer: Nigel Hook
Costume designer: Roberto Surace
Lighting designer: Ric Mountjoy
Music: Rob Falconer
Sound designer: Andrew Johnson
Presented by Kevin McCollum, J.J. Abrams, Kenny Wax, Stage Presence, Catherine Schreiber, Ken Davenport, Double Gemini Productions/deRoy Brunish, Damian Arnold/TC Beech, Greenleaf Productions/Bard-Roth, Martian Entertainment/Jack Lane/John Yonover, Lucas McMahon

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