149 West 45th St. between Broadway & Sixth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through December 30, $30-$139
About fifteen minutes before The Play That Goes Wrong was scheduled to begin, there was a commotion at the front of the stage involving several members of the crew. Concerned, I got close to hear what was going on. A woman who appeared to be the stage manager saw me and approached, a worried look on her face. “Have you seen Winston?” she asked me. “Winston?” I replied. “Yes, our dog. He’s missing and we need to find him,” she said, beginning a search through the aisles as the audience wandered in. Aha! The show had already started. In order for The Play That Goes Wrong to be successful, a whole lot of very intricate details and prearranged problems have to go completely right. Fortunately, they do, resulting in one of the funniest plays to hit Broadway in many a season. The Olivier Award–winning British import channels Noises Off, Fawlty Towers, Buster Keaton, and One Man, Two Guvnahs in an uproarious madcap farce that leaves no stone unturned in its wildly inventive quest to celebrate the unpredictability of live theater with superbly choreographed ineptitude. Written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields of the Mischief Theatre Company and gleefully directed by Mark Bell, their former teacher at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, The Play That Goes Wrong portrays the opening night of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society’s ill-begotten production of the fictional Susan H. K. Bridewell’s The Murder at Haversham Manor, a traditional British mystery set in the winter of 1922. In the play within a play, Charles Haversham (Greg Tannahill as Jonathan Harris) has been murdered, and the wily Inspector Carter (Shields as director Chris Bean) has arrived on the scene to interview the suspects, who include Charles’s brother, Cecil (Dave Hearn as Max Bennett); Charles’s fiancée and Cecil’s lover, Florence Colleymoore (Charlie Russell as Sandra Wilkinson); Florence’s brother, Thomas (Lewis as Robert Grove); Charles’s gardener, Arthur (Bennett); and Charles’s butler, Perkins (Sayer as Dennis Tyde). As the play, well, goes very wrong, the crew gets involved too, including sound engineer Trevor (Rob Falconer) and stage manager Annie (usually played by Nancy Zamit, but we saw the excellent Bryony Corrigan in her debut in the role).
One of the keys to the success of The Play That Goes Wrong, which boasts J. J. Abrams as one of its producers — he saw the show in London on a lark and became immediately enamored of it — is that the script is extremely tight and specific; the stage notes explain that “the actors of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society are not bad actors but the victims of unfortunate circumstances. . . . In essence, it is vital everyone works to present ‘the play that goes wrong,’ not ‘the play that’s being done badly.’ As the intrigue builds, so do the company’s never-ending troubles, as doors won’t open or close, cues are missed, props are mixed up or break, words are mispronounced, pieces of Nigel Hook’s set fall apart, and characters keep getting knocked out. The humor even extends to the Playbill itself, with fake ads and bios. In addition, there is occasional audience participation — it just so happens that Bennett appreciates midscene applause, and keep a look-out for that ledger. Part of the joyous fun is trying to anticipate what might get screwed up next — as well as wondering if there are any real mistakes, made by the cast, sound designer Andy Johnson, or lighting designer Ric Mountjoy. But the immensely talented troupe, clearly game for anything, are expert improvisers and marvelously adept at physical comedy, so you might never know, but the raised platform that serves as Charles’s study is particularly precarious, apparently destined to cause some major damage. (Members of the cast have indeed suffered injuries over the years performing The Play That Goes Wrong as well as its sequel, Peter Pan Goes Wrong, and The Comedy about a Bank Robbery, also by Mischief.) And as far as injuries go, you might laugh so hard you’ll hurt yourself, which is not necessarily such a bad thing.