When The Play That Goes Wrong ends, don’t offer applause. Instead offer the hardest-working cast on the main stem bandages, cots and maybe a defibrillator. For us, this Olivier-winning Best New Comedy is farce. For the eight players from London’s Mischief Theatre, it’s Survivor: Broadway. Then again, they got themselves into this mess. The intent seems to have been to out-Noises Off! Noises Off!, right down to the Playbill within the Playbill, and on that score it’s a smashing success – “smashing,” as in the stage gradually filling with broken furniture and busted-up actors.
The conceit is that the Cornley University Drama Society, whose ranks are so depleted that its last musical was Cat, is putting on a moldie oldie of a drawing room mystery, The Murder at Haversham Manor. Before director and co-star Chris (Henry Shields) comes on to introduce the play, lighting and sound operator Trevor (Rob Falconer) and stage manager Annie (Nancy Zamit) already have their hands full with a faulty mantle and an errant Duran Duran CD. Conditions steadily worsen as the show begins, with a corpse (Greg Tannahill) that won’t stay dead, paint thinner substituted for water, and mishaps with locked doors and failing props. (Twentieth-century telephones with those long, long, but never long enough cords are the gift that keeps on giving for farceurs; try getting a belly laugh with an iPhone.) By the end of Act One, Haversham Manor, and its inhabitants, are in tatters. As Act Two winds down in utter chaos, the American Theatre Wing should consider giving The Play That Goes Wrong a FEMA grant, rather than a Tony Award.
Is it funny? That depends on how strenuous you like your comedy. My six-year-old son’s favorite feature in Highlights magazine is the “That’s Silly!” page, where you identify all the goofy things happening in an illustration. The Play That Goes Wrong is two acts of “That’s Silly!” tableaus, and he’d probably enjoy the constant pratfalls. They’re deftly set up by Shields and his fellow actor-playwrights, Henry Lewis and Jonathan Sayer, and the direction by Mark Bell and stagecraft are “corking,” as they say in English plays as mildewed as The Murder at Haversham Manor. If you’re the kind of person who prefers to be tickled rather than bludgeoned, however, The Play That Goes Wrong may go wrong for you from the start. The couple next to me was stone-faced. Me? From the safe space of my seat, my inner six-year-old and I got a kick, a punch and a slap out of it.