Review: The Divine Daffiness of ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’
By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, April 4, 2017
As anyone who has ever been involved in theater can attest, your best war stories come from when things go wrong during a performance. Maybe a prop is missing, or someone drops a line, or some part of the set isn’t working. These mishaps may be awful while they’re occurring, but during the cast party, or years after the performance, these moments can be comic gold.
The folks behind The Play That Goes Wrong, a British import that opened on Broadway on April 2nd, have clearly had their share of theatrical mishaps, and have collected pretty much anything that could possibly go awry on stage into one evening of riotous, if a tad attenuated, comic mayhem.
The Play That Goes Wrong was devised by a London-based crew called the Mischief Theatre, which comprises a group of graduates from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA). The conceit for The Play That Goes Wrong is that we, the audience, are attending an ill-fated performance by a college theatrical troupe.
The Play clearly owes a major debt to Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, although it’s not as clever or dramatically satisfying. It also reflects some of the same anarchic fervor of Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors, but it’s not nearly as congenial.
That’s not to say that The Play That Goes Wrong isn’t a hoot. It most definitely is. Even if it lacks the intricate construction of Noises Off, or the commedia dell’arte pedigree of One Man, Two Guvnors, the show is nonetheless remarkable in its ability to keep varying and building upon the disasters that befall the put-upon cast of The Murder at Haversham Manor, the creaky play within the play that we are fictionally attending.
The producers behind the New York bow of The Play That Goes Wrong (which include Broadway heavy-hitter Kevin McCollum and Hollywood heavyweight J. J. Abrams making his Broadway producing debut) deserve a certain amount of recognition for bringing the play to Broadway at all. I mean, it’s not a movie adaptation, nor a jukebox musical, nor any kind of musical, for that matter. It’s that Broadway rarity, a comedy, and by unknown authors to boot. Plus, the cast features not a single Hollywood star, nor even a recognizable name.
The cast members — who include the three authors of the play — represent a terrifically committed ensemble of physical comedians with precision timing and seemingly inexhaustible energy. They all have their moments to shine, but particularly endearing is Dave Hearn as an untalented actor (in the play, that is) who becomes increasingly enamored of the audience’s laughter as the disasters mount.
Director Mark Bell keeps the calamities coming at a breakneck clip, aided by scenic designer Nigel Hook, whose set becomes a character unto itself, falling to pieces at just the right moments, and in ways that seem, for the most part, convincingly accidental.
Sure, it all gets old after a while, and the show goes on for about 15 minutes longer that was probably wise, but it’s actually remarkable how long it takes for the joke to get old. Some of the stage antics cross over from the laughably plausible to the strained and artificial. Certain set pieces are predicated on premises that no sane actor, amateur or professional, would be willing to commit to — including a recurring bit that has the cast members knowingly drinking paint thinner.
The Play That Goes Wrong will certainly not be to everyone’s taste. Anyone averse to spit takes and pratfalls is likely better served in checking out any of the more serious-minded offerings on Broadway this spring. But if all you’re looking for is a chance to laugh, loudly and often, The Play That Goes Wrong may be your best bet of the season.
The Play That Goes Wrong at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street. Opened April 2, 2017; tickets on sale through September 3, 2017. Written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields. Directed by Mark Bell; scenic design by Nigel Hook; costume design by Roberto Surace; lighting design by Ric Mountjoy; sound design by Andrew Johnson; original music by Rob Falconer. Cast: Rob Falconer, Dave Hearn, Henry Lewis, Charlie Russell, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields, Greg Tannahill, Nancy Zamit, Matthew Cavendish, Bryony Corrigan, Jonathan Fielding, and Amelia McClain.
Cover: (l. to r.) Dave Hearn, Greg Tannahill (on chaise lounge), Henry Lewis, and Charlie Russell in ‘The Play That Goes Wrong;’ photo: Jeremy Daniel.