There are times where it’s inappropriate to laugh. Wrong even. When a stranger trips and tumbles on the sidewalk. When the priest makes an accidental innuendo in the middle of a sermon. When a loud fart interrupts a funeral. Though society may shun us, sometimes you can’t help but laugh at these moments, lost in the throes of church giggles. But shame burns forth shortly after, sullying the joy. Thankfully, The Play That Goes Wrongy has come to Broadway to strip you of your shame, and let your church giggles run wild.
Created by England’s Mischief Theatre Company The Play That Goes Wrong is a madcap comedy so sensational it caught the attention of J.J. Abrams when he was making The Force Awakens. The famous filmmaker was so impressed by the show that wins laughs by brilliantly performing every possibility of a play gone wrong, that he became a first time theater producer, bringing the original cast from the West End to Broadway. There, Mischief Theatre Company’s core members portray the fictional Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society as they put on the play-within-the-play “The Murder at Haversham Manor,” a 1920s murder-mystery modeled after the works of Agatha Christie.
Ahead of the show’s official start, “crew” members approach chatting guests to ask for help. They tell you there’s a small dog central to the play, lost in theater. Have you seen her? Meanwhile, a sheepish stage manager (Nancy Zamit) attempts to fix a misplaced mantel on the set, pulling an audience member from his seat for assistance. As people continue to find their seats, my eyes were transfixed onstage where this game volunteer was pulled between holding the unmoored mantle in place and sweeping up the stage, by order of a scowling light operator (Rob Falconer).
Next came a curtain speech from “The Murder at Haversham Manor”s proud director (Henry Shields), who also plays the lead role of Inspector Carter. Proudly nodding, he thanked us all for coming, and lamented that past productions due to small budgets and and lack of appropriate castmembers resulted in less than grand theatricals like “The Lion and The Wardrobe,” “Snow White and the Tall Broad Gentlemen,” and the downsized Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “Cat.” As he speaks ardently, the giggles brew. They morph into chuckles as the play begins with a flustered butler (Jonathan Sayer) and gruff gentleman (Henry Lewis) blindly and repeatedly trodding on the outstretched hand of the central corpse (Greg Tannahill), who delicately yet blatantly turns his wrist to prevent further trampling. Chuckles grow to guffaws as the overzealous ingenue (Charlie Russell) wiggles and vogues, and her worried lover (Dave Hearn) plays to audience reaction like an overeager child, spinning his gestures bigger and bolder until his every delivery is basically a cartoonish interpretive dance.
Props go missing. Lines are flubbed. Set pieces clatter to the stage, surprising the society’s members, but sending the audience into helpless peals of full-throated laughter. The goings wrong get more and more ridiculous, with “actors” frantic and breathless in trying to just survive the play. And all this builds to a finale that is hilariously catastrophic, an incredible feat of physical comedy and comedic timing, and one of the wildest and most thrilling things I’ve seen on stage. By the time the Mischief Theater Company had taken their well-earned curtain call, I not only stood in ovation—along with much of the audience—I was absolutely exhausted from laughing, gasping, and squealing for two hours.
Even the playbill got in on the funked up fun.
If you’ve ever done theater on any level, you’re aware of the nightmare scenarios that can unfold and throw the finely oiled machinery of a production into absolute chaos. When these mistakes are authentically made, they are funny. But laughing at them in the moment seems cruel, as everyone on stage is trying their damnedest to do a good show! But The Play That Goes Wrong sets you free of these societal niceties, as everything that goes wrong is actually going right! With physical comedy that is both outlandish and finely tuned, The Mischief Theater makes messing up an Olympic event, and they tackle it with verve, relish, and wit.
More fun for theater nerds, The Play That Goes Wrong also plays with stereotypes within the community. There’s the arrogant ingenue with more sex appeal than sense. There’s the unrepentant ham, who’ll ruin the scene if it means attention for better or worse (including for miming a dog on a leash as the play’s pooch is woefully/wonderfully M.I.A.). There’s the harried straight man, the dolt who can’t get his entrance right (winning cheers from the audience when he finally does!) And there’s the infuriated director who stomps out of a scene to scold the crowd for their very rude laughing. Together, they liberate us from the shackles of decency, not only allowing us to laugh at their masterfully constructed spoof of theater itself, but also to retroactively enjoy all those real flubs we’ve seen on stage before.
Blending sheer silliness, precise pratfalls, and sly spoofing, this show plays like the hyperactive child of Monty Python. From the moment you enter the theater to the final curtain call, The Play That Goes Wrong is clever and deliciously fun. It’s an absolute blast with a remarkable cast. And tickets are as low as $30. Don’t miss it.
Enjoy a preview of the first ten minutes, as performed on The Royal Variety Performance from 2015.
If you want to know more about this bonkers and brilliant production, tune in to It’s Erik Nagel this weekend 6pmET/3pmPT on ‘Faction Talk’ Sirius 206 / XM 103 across the US and Canada. Or look for our podcast ep to hit Monday morning. There Erik and I interview The Play That Goes Wrong stars and co-writers, Henry Lewis, Henry Shields, and Jonathan Sayer.