Imagine popping in a DVD on movie night, skipping the film entirely and going straight to the blooper reel. Now imagine that the collection of groaners and gaffes runs longer than the actual movie itself. Finally, imagine that the gag reel’s vignettes repeat variations on the same mistake a dozen times over. The result would be about 15 minutes of fun, a half-hour of mild amusement and then a DVD swap for something with an actual story, interesting characters and more to it than self-congratulatory zaniness.
Such is the fate of The Play that Goes Wrong, a farcical English import now cavorting at Broadway’s Lyceum Theater. The winner of London’s 2015 Olivier Award for best new comedy has been compared to the redoubtable Noises Off in that both works follow the travails of desperate actors muddling through a performance despite every possible mishap befalling them. In the latter, more complex play, we watch calamities occurring from dress rehearsal through near-closing night, both onstage and behind the scenes. The Play that Goes Wrong follows a single performance by the “Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society” in which missed cues and mispronounced words are the least of the poor thespians’ problems.
Cute laughs occur even before the start of the play proper, as an audience member is drafted to hold up a continually dropping piece of the set. Then out comes lead actor Chris (Henry Shields, who is blessed with a vocal similarity to John Cleese) to introduce the “The Murder at Haversham Manor.” Some of the night’s best laughs occur during his monologue as he admits that the theater company’s poverty has forced the group to scale down its productions of “Cat” and “The Lion and the Wardrobe.”
So far so good, and it is initially fun to see these youthful Brits scampering about playing amateurs trying to cope with mislaid props, a distracted sound designer (Rob Falconer), and virtually everything and everyone being in the wrong place at the wrong time. To be sure, cleverness is abundant, but long before the end of its two hours’ traffic, Play’s pleasures diminish, even though the best sight gag—an upstairs floor tilting inexorably toward collapse (kudos to set designer Nigel Hook)—is saved for the second act.
I may well be in the minority in dismissing the piece as many audience members have a howling good time and critics both in New York and across the pond have found much to love in Mischief Theatre Company’s gaffes. Nevertheless, I tired of the repetitiveness, the pointless intrigues and the screeching. Perhaps I’ve seen too many real plays go wrong, but after awhile, I just wanted to be the Dave that Goes Home.