“The Play That Goes Wrong” gets everything hilariously right on Broadway. This latest Brit import will keep you laughing long after it’s over. And watch out! It’s so stupendously funny it may run forever!
Right now it’s cracking up audiences at the Lyceum and everything about it is top drawer as the British say. Low comedy, high comedy, physical comedy, double and triple entendres, malapropisms, vaudevillian spit-takes… Every comic stop is pulled out and it’s a joy to watch the Cornley University Dramatic Society explode with inept hilarity as they try to stage a dreadful 1930’s style thriller “The Murder at Havisham Manor” well. And of course, they can’t. It’s seemingly impossible for them to do anything right.
A direct cousin of that other great Brit backstage farce “Noises Off”, ” The Play that Goes Wrong” is set entirely ON the stage, during a particularly horrendous performance of this Whodunit that has hoary, horrific dialogue and no suspense whatsoever. Think Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” as if written by the Mouse.
Yes, it’s snowing outside(scraps of large white pieces of paper thrown at the window from stage right) and the assembled have gathered for the engagement party of a lord, who, of course, is found dead (well, almost) as the curtain rises. Actually the incredibly lithe Greg Tannahill is found creeping into place as the dead man, as the curtain precipitously goes up. He’s the most hilariously active corpse I’ve ever seen in a play on Broadway, or anywhere, as everyone WILL keep stepping on his extended hand causing him to jump in pain as he tries to lie stock still . And all and sundry keep sitting on his prone figure sprawled on the chaise longue stage center.
I was quite taken particularly with Dave Hearn’s upper class twit and brother to the (almost) dead man. New to the stage, he keeps snickering to himself as he finds the audience applauding or laughing at his antics, and then starts bowing to them and applauding himself, as every other cast member keeps slapping his hands down to get him to stop. This is an ancient theatrical device known as the “Klaptrap”. No, I’m not kidding, and this is what actors in the 19th century up to and including Tallulah Bankhead would do to acknowledge the audience’s approval. Hence, the word “clap-trap.” And yes, there’s a lot of claptrap in “The Play That Goes Wrong.” Thank god! And I loved every minute of it!Also a particularly agile physical comedian, he doesn’t let one set-piece (or way ward prop) go by without tripping over it or slapping him in the face. He seems also always to be in danger of injuring himself, so much of his comedy is death-dying in its’ oafish, but perfectly-timed hilarity.
It’s written by a comic trio sent from heaven to make us all split our sides in a way I didn’t think possible in this dark time. Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields have my undying admiration and gratitude for keeping us all bouncing in our seats til we think we can bounce no more. But we can! I was still bouncing in Act Two!
Lewis I thought was wearing a fat suit. Well, he either is or isn’t, and the fat jokes abound, particularly when he is caught on a collapsing second floor balcony. I didn’t think a person of his great size could move at that rate of speed. But he does.
Pint-sized Jonathan Sayer is paired with Lewis in most scenes as the malaproping, ancient butler who at first I thought was named Florence. He has all his multi-syllable words written on his hands and STILL he gets them wrong as he pronounces “façade,” as “fuck-aid.” Lewis is always seeming to be about to sit on him or squash him in various iterations.
Lastly, there is the John Cleese, stiff-upper-lip chap Henry Shields as “The Inspector,” who is being played in hilarious dead pan by the Cornley Society’s Director, Chris Bean, who gets the proceedings rolling (or is it roiling?) by announcing that at the outset that he is making his “de-boo” and that the Cornley Dramatic Society has now increased its’ funding to the point where they don’t have to do “Roald Dahl’s James and the Peach” or “Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cat.”
They are the new Monty Python-like comedy-theater group, who all as one seem to be claiming British drama school LAMDA as their alma mater. And this type of finely honed, precisely timed physical comic mayhem has not been seen in New York since the late Charles Ludlam’s Theater of the Ridiculous.
Calling themselves, appropriately, the Mischief Theatre, I feel that they are going to be around forever, so precious and unique is their gift of inspired laughter. “The Play That Goes Wrong” is STILL running in London and won this year’s Olivier award for Best New Comedy.