Some of my favorite theater moments have been when things went wrong onstage, but the actors never skipped a beat. There was the picture that fell off the wall and the actor who noted, “It’s hard to get good help,” and the prop that collapsed so the actress lay down to use it. How do “amateur” performers handle these mishaps, especially when they happen one after the other?
That’s the premise for the hysterical British import The Play That Goes Wrong. Written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, the comedy is presented as “a show-in-a-show.” Although I already saw it in London, I laughed as much this time as I did last time.
The play begins with cast members roaming around, the fiancée (Charlie Russell) looking for a missing guard dog and the soundman (Ron Falconer) seeking his Duran, Duran tapes. Then the director (Shields, channeling John Cleese) introduces us to a performance of “Murder at Haversham Hall.”
The ‘play’ opens to a dead body lying on the couch but, unfortunately, the body keeps moving. Charles (Gregg Tannahill) has been murdered, so his butler and his best friend (Lewis) call the police detective (Shields again). Whatever can go wrong goes wrong. When props knock out actors, others are enlisted unwillingly to take their places. The stage manager (Nancy Zamit), filling in for the ingénue, drops her script and reads lines out of sequence. A section of the play is repeated several times when the actor can’t remember the next line. Some important props break while others are missing and ridiculous substitutes are found. Doors don’t open and the set falls literally apart, but the valiant troupe soldiers on.
We never forget that the performers are amateurs, especially when the brother mugs and grins for the audience (Dave Hearn) and the butler mispronounces words (Sayer).
There’s verbal humor, lots and lots of physical humor that requires synchronization, and visual humor, too. The comedy is lowbrow and the audience’s laughter becomes contagious.
The rain had been coming down steadily all day in NYC, making it cold, wet and unpleasant, the political world was roiling with intrigues and dissension, but The Play That Goes Wrong was a happy place.