By Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields; Directed by Mark Bell
Produced by Mischief Theatre
Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street
by Gabriella Steinberg on 4.2.17
Jonathan Sayer, Henry Lewis, Dave Hearn, Greg Tannahill, and Charlie Russell in The Play That Goes Wrong. Photo by Alastair Muir.
BOTTOM LINE: A hysterical, and predictable, experience that will have you laughing until you're exhausted.
What doesn’t go wrong in The Play that Goes Wrong?
In this slapstick comedy by Mischief Theatre—a British comedy group composed of alumni from the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art—a fictional drama club at a British university puts on a play that (you guessed it) goes wrong. Their poor director has done literally everything to make this play perfect (including doing all the "design"—refer to the program for the hilarious descriptions of these characters and their work on their fictional show within the show)—but their Duran Duran-obsessed board operator misses light and sound cues thanks to his cell phone addiction, and the actors miss lines, break set pieces, get hurt, and essentially ruin the entire fictionalized melodrama, "The Murder at Haversham Manor." Mischief Theatre’s aesthetic is in the tradition of Monty Python, with references to the cultural tradition of drama clubs at universities and their over-the-top actors that take themselves far too seriously. In the world of the play, if these students were a little more relaxed and improv-happy, their murder-mystery production would have been a breeze. The comedy lies in the tragic anxiety of putting on a working show, and laughing at their disaster is, for the most part, a good time.
This physical comedy is also an in-joke for theatre fans. It’s very easy to catch on to a story about theatre-makers in action, but one doesn’t need to be a theatre person to laugh during this show. These slapstick jokes are designed for constant laughs, and after two hours of laughing I was really exhausted. The set and props, designed by Nigel Hook, are just as entertaining as the actors trying to reckon with their brokenness. As wonderful as this funny comedy is, the play within the play wasn’t amusing enough to create a complete experience for the whole show. "The Murder at Haversham Manor" is a classic whodunit, featuring a victim (Greg Tannahill), his fiancée (Charlie Russell)—who is having an affair with the victim’s brother (Dave Hearn), two friends of the family (Henry Lewis and Jonathan Sayer), and an investigator (Henry Shields). The melodrama is very palatable and understandable; the whole show could be trimmed down to an intermission-less 110 minutes.
Even more exhausting than the running time is the insidious misogyny permeating the experience (#sorrynotsorry to bring this up). There are two women in this production of (all white) actors. The character of the harlot fiancée gets hit in the face and is concussed, and is therefore replaced soon into the show by the other woman, the awkward stage hand. When the actress is carried offstage, the joke is that her floral underwear is visible to the audience. Later on in the show, the stagehand also gets hit in the face, and is replaced (for a moment) by the apathetic male board op. The original actress is able to return to the stage—in her underwear and negligee, because that’s a thing women wear on the regular (note my sarcasm). When the stagehand is better and arrives back onstage, she sees her star-turn fading away, and they fight for dominance with the actress hitting her head again. A woman is either a sex object or a prude. They compete for attention because obviously (again, sarcasm) two women can’t possibly work together without a catfight involved. Even substance-free shows like this one need to do better in their portrayals of women. Hopefully Mischief Theatre can get it together for their next engagement.
Overall, The Play that Goes Wrong is exactly what you expect it to be: something very funny, but ultimately predictable. The winning formula lies in the delivery, with an emphasis on the pathos of these students’ situation. The Mischief Theatre tries to get us into the experience by having us meet the actors before the show as we’re walking into the theatre (asking us where we’ve seen certain misplaced items, and such) and by giving us a cute fake program in which the fictionalized university students all sweetly cite their favorite acting technique. Unfortunately, those elements don’t play well in a big Broadway house. American audiences in Broadway spaces are used to seeing shows about the industry, so if that’s your cup of English tea, you will enjoy The Play that Goes Wrong.
(The Play That Goes Wrong plays at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street, in an open run. The running time is 2 hours with an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7; Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 3 and 7:30. Tickets are $30 - $139 and are available at broadwaygoeswrong.com or by calling 212-239-6200.)
The Play That Goes Wrong is by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields. Directed by Mark Bell. Set Design is by Nigel Hook. Lighting Design is by Ric Mountjoy. Sound Design is by Andrew Johnson. Additional Music is by Rob Falconer. Stage Manager is Matt DiCarlo.
The cast is Matthew Cavendish, Bryony Corrigan, Rob Falconer, Dave Hearn, Henry Lewis, Charlie Russell, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields, Greg Tannahill and Nancy Zamit.