Before the play-within-the-play begins, its director apologizes for “the box office mix-up,” expressing hope that “the 617 of you affected will enjoy our little murder mystery just as much as you would have enjoyed Hamilton.” That’s the most sophisticated joke – indeed one of the few verbal ones — in this silly slapstick backstage farce that has improbably opened on Broadway.
Audiences may indeed enjoy The Play That Goes Wrong….if not as much as Hamilton, perhaps, surely as much as Noises Off, which it resembles, minus the plates of sardines nor anything approaching that play’s cleverness. And I say this having called Noises Off, when it had its second Broadway revival last year, little more than The Three Stooges with a British accent.
In The Play That Goes Wrong, it is opening night at the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society’s latest production, The Murder at Haversham Manor. Noted philanthropist Charles Haversham – “young, rich and soon to be married” – is discovered dead on his couch. Famed local Inspector Carter assembles friends and family – suspects all. Charles’s fiancé Florence, after all, has been having a secret affair with Charles’s brother Cecil….
Let’s stop here, for rarely on Broadway has a plot been more beside the point. And if nobody in the audience can possibly care about the convoluted plot of The Murder at Haversham Manor, we are asked to make even less of an investment in the plot of The Play That Goes Wrong, because it doesn’t really have a plot, beyond: Everything goes wrong on stage. That means unheeded cues, mixed-up lines, mispronunciations, misplaced props, and, above all, a malfunctioning set. Set designer Nigel Hook is really the star of this show, his co-star the director Mark Bell, who choreographs the ever-increasing mayhem and well-calibrated destruction with the precision of an engineer.
The eight members of the cast, all making their Broadway debuts, impersonate amateur actors with the verve of collegiate improvisers, which makes sense, since together they founded the Mischief Theatre comedy troupe in 2008 while still students and recent graduates of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Three of the cast members are credited as the authors of this, Mischief’s first scripted play, which was originally titled The Murder Before Christmas, and began life upstairs of a pub in London in 2013. After touring around (including at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival), it wound up a hit on London’s West End, where it won the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy.
In its transfer across the Atlantic, there have been some obvious script changes (such as that line about Hamilton), but it remains British through and through, spoofing the Agatha Christie-like mysteries peculiar to the British amateur theatrical landscape, and trading on the international appeal of the UK’s anarchic physical comedy tradition. I laughed at a line on their website: “If you’ve ever dreamed of seeing “Downton Abbey” taken over by Monty Python, then you have some very strange dreams.”
Its silliness is relentless, beginning before all the playgoers have even taken our seats. We see the tech people on stage – including stand-out Rob Falconer as Trevor, the company’s punk-like and inept lighting and sound operator — trying to fix a door that keeps on opening by itself. They fix it too well, because once the play-within-the-play begins, nobody can open it; they have to sneak around the backdrop to enter the stage. This is one of the running jokes of the show.
Another is an actor being knocked unconscious or stuffed inside a clock or shoved out the window, and his or her cast mates trying to carry on as if nothing has happened. And then there are the low-budget gags, such as a snowstorm being represented by cheap shredded paper, or the lights mock-amateurishly turning red during a mock-melodramatic moment.
The running jokes are repeated with what I suppose is intended as mounting hilarity, although some might see it as diminishing returns. The Play That Goes Wrong could just as easily have had a running time of 20 minutes as two hours, without losing anything essential.
Humor is, of course, subjective, but there’s at least one sign that The Play That Goes Wrong will score with people not exactly known for their jocularity, such as J.J. Abrams, best known as the creator of Lost on TV, and the movie sequels Star Trek and Star Wars. The Play That Goes Wrong marks his debut as a Broadway producer.
The Play That Goes Wrong is on stage at the Lyceum Theater (149 West 45th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenue, New York, N.Y., 10036)
Tickets and details
The Play That Goes Wrong Written by Henry Lewis, Henry Shields and Jonathan Sayer . Directed by Mark Bell, set design by Nigel Hook, lighting design by Ric Mountjoy, costume design by Roberto Surace, sound design by Andy Johnson. Featuring Rob Falconer, Dave Hearn, Henry Lewis, Charlie Russell, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields, Greg Tannahill, Nancy Zamit. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.