April Fool’s Day: perfect timing to see this prankster of a show, The Play That Goes Wrong. While people in London are still mopping their eyes, New Yorkers have a chance to fall off their chairs laughing (I’ve only just picked myself up). It would be wise to park all theatrical sophistication and pretentions at the door, for this is pure farce.
It’s one of those cherished theater success stories: a tiny Fringe show created by a bunch of students hits the jackpot. Still running on the West End after three years, having won an Olivier Award among other prestigious prizes, The Play That Goes Wrong arrives on Broadway to make its American debut with the original cast.
Co-written by Mischief Theatre company members Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, The Play That Goes Wrong is built on an old old joke: An amateur theater troupe is presenting a creaky whodunnit about a murder in a stately home and makes a mess of it. The Playbill contains the fake program for “The Murder at Haversham Manor,” complete with photos and fake names, as well as the real program, complete with photos and real names: Rob Falconer, Dave Hearn, Henry Lewis, Charlie Russell, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields, Greg Tannahill and Nancy Zamit are the endearing players of dazzling agility.
The cast tries to follow the murder-mystery script, but as the title suggests, everything that can go wrong does, and the laughs begin even before the play-within-the-play does as the crew tries to ready the stage. A door won’t stay closed (which later, of course, won’t open), the mantel falls off, the broom handle detaches – minor mishaps that escalate as the fake actors forget lines, get stuck in a scene that threatens to endlessly repeat, and reach for props that aren’t there. One of my favorite lines is the Inspector’s: “This is your father in the portrait, is it not?” They all turn to the large painting over the fireplace. It is of an English spaniel. Meanwhile the real actors are providing dexterous mid-air catches and nimble pratfalls.
By Act Two, when they’ve already milked every schtick and goof, they add the set (designed with comic genius by Nigel Hook) that dismantles itself in one calamity after another.
It is to the ensemble’s credit that although we gasp at each new disaster, we don’t for a moment worry – nobody’s really going to get hurt. Mark Bell has directed to a faretheewell, reducing us to helpless, happy, laughing children.
Toby Zinman is a theater critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and a regular contributor to Phindie.com, By day, she is an English professor at University of the Arts.