Recently, I attended the American Theatre Critics Association conference in New York City, where I saw four Broadway shows for review. The third of my four reviews is “The Play That Goes Wrong” which opened on April 2nd, 2017 and is selling tickets through Jan. 14th of 2018.
When looking at the title, “The Play that Goes Wrong,” and then after seeing the show, you realize just how much of an understatement that title really is. It’s in the same ballpark as the following understatements:
– The Titanic was a boating accident.
– Stephen Curry has a pretty good jump shot.
– Donald Trump has a Twitter account.
This wild show, which has been playing at the Lyceum Theater in New York City since April of 2017 and presented by the Mischief Theatre of London is not just a physical farce. For some companies and theatre makers, this might be a documentary. If you don’t believe me, check out this true story about a production of “Peter Pan” gone wrong from “This American Life.”
The premise of the show – the Cornley University Drama Society, with their band of jolly and untalented thespians, are mounting a dark and brooding piece, “The Murder at Haversham Manor” on Broadway in the spirit of a great, British murder-mystery. This is quite a boon for the company, who are killing the game with their ability to finally do a show with enough actors to fill all the roles, and on the Great White Way to boot. In the past, budgetary concerns have seen some of the most famous titles in the theatre canon reduced to their more pathetic versions in the hands of the Society. In one of the most hilarious bits of the show that has nothing to do with its physicality, the head of the Society Chris Bean (Mark Evans) comes out and talks to the audience about the company’s struggles with participants and even their bad luck with props. In one example, sadly, because their peach was initially diminutive, “James and the Peach” was all they could muster. But then their lone fruit went the way of other uneaten fruit. Thus, the final title of their show – “James.”
Once that initial introduction is done, it’s off to the races to perform the play within the play. And immediately, the wheels begin to fall off.
From what I was able to deduce, the play was about a murder (it’s in the title). And they are trying to get to the bottom of it. So, there’s that.
If you are familiar with the godfather of British farces, Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off!” with all its backstage drama splendor, this piece will look terribly familiar. There is Charles, (Jonathan Fielding) a corpse that hilariously keeps coming back to life in order to get himself off the stage. You also have the stagehand Trevor (Akron Watson) who goes a bit too hard on his love for 1980’s pop group Duran Duran. And you can’t forget his fellow stagehand Annie, (Ashley Bryant), who worked on the Society’s production of “Cat” (again, budget), and gets thrust into action because the ingenue Sandra (Amelia McClain) keeps accidentally getting knocked the f*** out in a few ridiculous ways.
This new cast, which began their run this past September, is up to the task of exuding the onstage madness required for the duration of two side-splitting hours of mayhem, even though sometimes they might go a bit too hard to get the laugh. Alex Mandell, who plays audience favorite Max Bennett, is at his mugging best as he seems incapable of delivering any line without taking pause to relish every audience cheer and laugh. Then there is the butler Perkins (Harrison Unger), who has a hilarious running gag where lines are written down on his hand, but unfortunately, none of those are written phonetically, which would have helped his horrid reading skills. It becomes quite the game for the audience to decipher what the hell he is trying to say, and informs one of the shows best bits, with the scene stuck in vinyl broken record mode until the correct wording is delivered and the scene can move forward.
For all the wacky hijinks that permeate the stage, the biggest star of the show might be the Tony Award-winning scenic design by Nigel Hook. There is no amount of bells, whistles and tricks this set does not have up its sleeve, and each malfunction is a treat, some which put the performers in a dizzyingly high degree of difficulty. The set is put to the test even before the show, as both Trevor and Annie try to get a million things repaired with the help of some willing audience members.
This kind of fantastic farce is certain to leave many in the audience with tears in their eyes from laughter. But for a few who have lived the real-life versions of this theatrical disaster, those tears may be because the show is a bit too traumatic and hits too close to home.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
The Mischief Theatre of London presents “The Play That Goes Wrong” on Broadway
Written by Henry Lewis, Henry Shields and Jonathan Sayer
Directed by Mark Bell
The Word: A high energy farce that presses on the funny bone and doesn’t let up.
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
Running Time: Two Hours with one 15-minute intermission
The Lyceum Theater
149 W. 45th Street
New York City, NY (Midtown West)
On sale through Jan. 14th
For tickets, call (212) 239-6200 or visit the show’s official website