By Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields
Directed by Mark Bell
At the Lyceum Theatre
149 West 45th Street, New York. Till September 3, 2017

Though it has now had a theatre life of over 5 years, having begun as a 17-minute improvisation by three English friends, The Play That Goes Wrong capitalizes on impromptu or seemingly impromptu happenings. The pre-show confusion and accidents look spontaneous, though they have been well thought out in advance, even as the supposed stage manager Annie (Nancy Zamit) of the highly (or lowly) amateur Cornely University Drama Society recruits an unsuspecting audience member into serving as a butt for physical farce, involving a recalcitrant ledge over a faux-fireplace, a hammer whose head falls off at an inopportune moment, a door that won’t stay shut, et cetera. The set-up or warm-up is, of course, prologue to a play-within-a-play—The Murder at Haversham Manor, a serious-minded British murder-mystery that devolves into pure farce—a sort of Agatha Christie spoof gone topsy-turvy or haywire. But there’s more to the prologue, for Chris Bean (Director, Designer, Costume Designer, Prop Maker, Dramaturge, Voice Coach, etc. etc. of the afore-mentioned Drama Society, as well as playing Inspector Carter) comes on to explain with awkward modesty about the modesty of the group’s artistic limits. Lacking enough able-bodied actors, instead of Cats or The Three Sisters, it could offer only Cat or The Two Sisters. Henry Shields who plays him, does so with splendidly timed and phrased studied effect, quite at odds with what follows. And what follows is sheer madness, that, though caviar to a general audience unaccustomed to real farce, will be sheer torture in general to those well versed in theatre. Well, not quite sheer, because there are, admittedly, choice moments of inspired lunacy, and the entire cast is expert in their calculated antics.

Good thing too because the script is incredibly goofy, groan-worthy, and hardly ever on the same plane as Noises Off or, even, Jitters (a Canadian theatre farce). Of course, there is the expected collection of English eccentrics, typical of the genre, tweaked to a hysterical state of aggressive comic exaggeration: a male corpse named Charles (Greg Tannahill) that simply can’t stay still while around him is falling apart; a sexy, pulchritudinous fiancée (Charlie Russell) given to ridiculously affected vamp poses; her tweedy, husky brother (Henry Lewis), and best friend of deceased Charles; an old retainer (Jonathan Sayer) who is given to congenital mispronunciation (“fuck-aide” for “façade”); a handsomely duplicitous young man (Dave Hearn) so obviously delighted by any applause he receives for his amateur enthusiasms that he habitually steps out of character for the spontaneous ovations; and an imaginary vicious dog on a metal leash, straining threateningly. But you get the point, by now, though it is important to add that the jokes are given extra theatrical life by their evident sources in theatre itself, for there are lighting and sound cues that frequently go awry because their designer (Rob Falconer) allows himself to be entranced and distracted by the music of Duran Duran; the butler has his cues and lines inscribed on his palms and wrists; the actors sometimes find themselves (expertly) repeating dialogue out of sync and in desperate circles; and the set (Nigel Hook’s marvellously concocted tacky simulacrum of a creepy English manor drawing-room) becomes a star player all its own as it performs hair-raising stunts almost beyond belief.

(L-R: Jonathan Sayer, Greg Tannahill, Henry Lewis, Dave Hearn, and Charlie Russell) (photo: Jeremy Daniel)

The set was the only thing to earn a Tony nomination and award for this show, so The Play That Goes Wrong can rightly boast that it was the only Broadway show to have a 100% success rate at the Tony’s. Moreover, like many a Broadway mega-musical, it can now boast of audiences hilariously singing the set.


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