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The Play That Goes Wrong

Britain's Mischief Theatre brings its disaster of a show to Broadway.

Jonathan Sayer, Henry Lewis, Dave Hearn (center falling), Greg Tannahill (on couch), and Charlie Russell (in window) star in Mischief Theatre's The Play That Goes Wrong, directed by Mark Bell, at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre.
(© Alastair Muir)

Few things are more entertaining than a real turkey: a mess of a play that's so bad, it's good. That seems to be what U.K.-based Mischief Theatre is going for with The Play That Goes Wrong, a spectacular theatrical catastrophe now imploding at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre.

As you've probably surmised from the title, this is a planned demolition (and an exceedingly well-executed one at that). Mischief Theatre has made a name for itself trafficking in such artful failure: The Play That Goes Wrong is now playing its third year of an extended run on London's West End, while its Peter Pan Goes Wrong has become a seasonal hit that was recently broadcast on the BBC. The company's The Comedy About a Bank Robbery (they're all about truth in advertising) is also enjoying an open West End run, making Mischief nothing short of a theatrical sensation in the U.K. But does their comedy translate across the pond?

Dave Hearn, Greg Tannahill, Henry Lewis, and Charlie Russell play actors in a 1920s murder mystery in The Play That Goes Wrong on Broadway.
(© Jeremy Daniel)

The short answer is yes, owing in no small part to the extraordinary efforts of the cast (most of the core company members have come over for this Broadway debut). Before we even take our seats, we see them scurrying across the stage, attempting to stabilize the rickety set for The Murder at Haversham Manor, the fictitious 1920s murder mystery that will be sacrificed on the altar of comedy. The details of that third-rate whodunit are unimportant, and we regularly lose the plot in the melee. Suffice it to say, it's a Broadway debut that makes Moose Murders look like an unequivocal success.

Before the show begins, we meet Chris Bean (Henry Shields), president of the Cornley University Drama Society, the troupe producing The Murder at Haversham Manor. He's also the director, costume designer, voice coach, and lead actor (always a bad sign). And yep, from the moment we see Jonathan (Greg Tannahill) stumble onstage and collide with a chaise longue during a stray lighting cue, we know that this is going to be a disaster (he's supposed to be playing Charles Haversham, a character who is supposed to be dead). With the set falling down and the actors tripping over one another, it's already Act 3 of Noises Off, and we've barely dissolved our mints.

Intentionally or not, The Play That Goes Wrong invites comparison to that ultimate backstage farce by Michael Frayn. The script (penned by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields) seems to lift certain bits directly from the 1982 comedy, like when two actors appear simultaneously onstage, playing the same role. Of course, Noises Off is a much slower build, acquainting us with the backstage drama in the first act before allowing it to infiltrate the play-within-a-play in the following two. By the end, we find ourselves ambushed with laughter. In many ways, it is a more satisfying experience than The Play That Goes Wrong, which bolts out of the gate at 100 percent. We wonder how on earth the performers are going to sustain this level of lunacy.

Remarkably, they do. All three authors appear in the show, leading an ensemble composed entirely of skilled practitioners of an old-style of physical comedy, the kind mostly only seen in Buster Keaton movies and reruns of I Love Lucy. Their comic timing is so precise you can't help but laugh. Their pratfalls are so real, you can't help but gasp.

Clockwise: Henry Lewis, Rob Falconer, Nancy Zamit, Greg Tannahill, and Charlie Russell star in The Play That Goes Wrong on Broadway.
(© Alastair Muir)

The two fearless ladies of the cast, Charlie Russell and Nancy Zamit, go in for the most sustained punishment of the night, crashing into the set and each other. Russell portrays Sandra Wilkinson, an 11th-year student who is playing the role of simpering flapper Florence Colleymoore in Murder at Haversham Manor. When a close encounter with a door sidelines Sandra for the better part of an hour, stage manager Annie (Zamit) takes over. At first appearing nervous, she increasingly relishes life under the stage lights. We love hearing her break up the other actors' overwrought Received Pronunciation with her thick Lancashire accent, cheerily delivering lines like, "How will I go on? Sobs." You'll howl with laughter.

Director Mark Bell marshals an impressive amount of stagecraft for a play that regularly makes us squirm in our seats out of a palpable sense of real danger. Nigel Hook seems to have modeled his multilevel set after the Milton Bradley board game, 13 Dead End Drive: Unsecured scenery and combustible light fixtures are a constant threat. Roberto Surace's costumes are durable enough to survive Bell's extreme staging while also conjuring a Downton Abbey-themed dinner party: Sandra is Lady Mary during aperitifs; Annie is Lady Mary after her fifth brandy. Composer Rob Falconer (who also hilariously portrays light and sound operator Trevor Watson) underscores the most dramatic moments of Murder at Haversham Manor with appropriately cheesy dinner-theater music, although the track occasionally cuts away to a certain new wave band of dubiously enduring popularity.

Henry Shields, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Lewis appear in The Play That Goes Wrong, a comedy they wrote together.
(© Jeremy Daniel)

The Play That Goes Wrong isn't a brilliant comedy, but you're going to laugh anyway. This is two hours of unapologetic, stupid fun, buoyed along by a cast of ultra-committed performers. It's a fitting key ingredient for this affectionate sendup of the thespian ethos of going on with the show, no matter what.